Lines and Colors art blog

Charles Willson Peale, Founding Father of American painting

Charles Willson Peale, self portrait, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), Self Portrait
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.

There is also an excellent selection of the painter’s work, including the wonderful The Artist in His Museum, above top, in the collection of the Museum of The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

If there are Founding Fathers of American painting, Charles Willson Peale is certainly in the front rank.


8 responses to “Charles Willson Peale, Founding Father of American painting”

  1. “a holiday on which we celebrate our freedom from having to spell the word “color” with a superfluous “u”.

    Pity you haven’t yet been freed from the suerfluous vowels in “superfluous” 🙂

    But seriously, thanks for a wonderful blog. I’m an RSS subscriber, and just thought to drop by and say how much it is appreciated by art lovers.

    1. We should make a trade agreement with someone in the Balkans, swapping vowels for consonants.

      Thanks for the comments, glad you’re enjoying the blog.

  2. I have a theory, consonants weigh more than vowels.
    Think about it… all the consonants are in eastern Europe, top heavy, all the vowels are in the South Pacific.
    The heavier consonants led to the tilting of the earths axis.

    On this post… one of the best things about your blog is when I learn something new. You gave us both historical (Sons of Liberty, the Boston Tea party) and artistic background on Peale.

  3. Gilles Avatar

    I think the fourth painting from the top represents general Washington? Look at the flag behind him, on his left; uncanny resemblance with the European Union flag.

    1. George Washington was a Socialist?

  4. Well sure… he socialized didn’t he?

  5. Painter, Riverside.. did you know George Washington was a painter himself!

  6. When Peale color coded a pen and ink drawing of the Maryland State House dome with the color ‘straw’ as the color to be painted, what color did he mean? I suggest it was the color of a new cedar shingle, but would like to know what Peale experts think.

    Ed Papenfuse

    Note: I left the u out of color.