Today is the 4th of July. Here in the United States, it’s a holiday on which we celebrate our freedom from having to spell the word “color” with a superfluous “u”.
It’s also a day in which we celebrate the “Founding Fathers”, individuals who cast the documents and governmental structure on which the country is based.
One of the key figures in early American painting, Charles Willson Peale, was known in particular for his portraits of the Founding Fathers and other figures from the American Revolution.
Peale himself was a member of the Sons of Liberty, a group of pre-independence rebels who helped mobilize the resistance to British colonial rule, and are perhaps best known for the acts of the “Boston Tea Party”, a protest against government supported corporate monopoly and lack of representation in Parliament (often misunderstood and miscast as a revolt against high taxes by modern, so-called “Tea Partiers”, but I digress).
Peale went on to serve in the Pennsylvania Militia during the American Revolutionary War, attaining the rank of Captain, and later was a member of the Pennsylvania state Assembly.
Through this time he met and painted a number of important figures who are prominent in the nation’s early history, including Benjamin Franklin (images above, second down), Thomas Jefferson (third down), John Hancock, Alexander Hamilton and, in particular, George Washington (above, fourth down), of whom he painted almost 60 portraits.
Peale studied under the noted American portrait painter John Singleton Copely, and later with American expatriate Benjamin West in England. He taught painting to his brother, James Peale, a noted painter of still life and miniatures.
Peale also trained most of his 10 children to paint landscape and portraiture, and named many of them after great artists of the past. At least three of them became artists of note in their own right. Raphaelle Peale, noted for his still life paintings, Rembrandt Peale, a portraitist who also painted an elder George Washington after being introduced by his father, and Rubens Peale, who with his brother Rembrandt took up his father’s mantle as museum director.
Charles Willson Peale, a naturalist as well as an artist, is credited with founding the nation’s first museum, with botanical, biological and archeological exhibits, as portrayed in his self portrait above, top.
He was also the initiator and co-founder, along with sculptor William Rush and others, of the nation’s first art school, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. (When I was a student at the Academy, the building where we took most of our classes was named the “Peale House”.)
Peale also produced a number of self portraits (image above, top and bottom right), and portraits of his family, including the trompe l’oeil portrait of his sons known as Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), which has long been one of my favorites at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This painting is often reproduced without its false doorframe and actual wooden step (see smaller image to the right) which create a pretty convincing illusion; reportedly fooling none other than George Washington, who is said to have initially thought it was the boys themselves when passing by the painting mounted against a wall, and greeted them. The painting’s detail page on the Philadelphia Museum site includes a zoomable image.
If there are Founding Fathers of American painting, Charles Willson Peale is certainly in the front rank.