Considered America’s first artistic dynasty, the Peale family was led by patriarch Charles Wilson Peale. Born in 1741, Peale traveled to England at the age of 26 to study with artist Benjamin West. Upon his return, he settled in his native Maryland, before moving to Philadelphia—then the nation’s capital—in 1776, a heady year in American politics. Indeed, Peale was a captain in the Pennsylvania militia, though he still managed to paint during his battle service, mostly small portraits of Continental Army officers. After the war he served in the Pennsylvania state assembly, before refocusing his efforts to his first love: painting. His portraits of America’s great men—Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and John Hancock—are notable, but it is the nearly 60 portraits of George Washington for which Peale is most famous. He painted the future first President of the foundling country in 1772, two years before Washington held public office, and 17 before he assumed the Presidency.
Not satisfied with merely creating art, Peale opened his own museum. Initially called the Philadelphia Museum, Peale’s pet project focused not on his paintings, but rather on natural history. Peale’s American Museum, as it came to be known, exhibited botanic and biological specimens, as well as numerous stuffed birds (Peale, a true Renaissance man, was self-taught in the art of taxidermy) and a mastodon skeleton, among other curiosities.
Housed in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art are several galleries titled The Art of the Peales. Decorated with period furniture, the rooms include several works by Peale and his artist children. He had 10 in total, with eight named after famous artists and two after scientists, paying homage to his two great interests in life. Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian all went on to become artists in their own right, with Raphaelle often considered America’s first professional still-life painter. Titian was an illustrator of scientific surveys; Rembrandt, a portraitist, followed in his father’s footsteps and opened a museum in Baltimore; Rubens opened one in New York.
The galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art showcase their work, including Charles Wilson Peale’s famous trompe l’oeil painting “The Staircase Group,” of his sons Titian and Raphaelle ascending a staircase. There is also a framed admission ticket to Peale’s American Museum, which can be seen in “The Staircase Group,” laying along a bottom step. On view are also several still-lifes by Raphaelle and portraits by Rembrandt and Charles, including of the family matriarch, Rachel, mourning the loss of their daughter to smallpox.
Charles himself died in 1827, and is buried at St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood. He was an accomplished painter, but also dabbled in shoemaking, carpentry, and more exotic pursuits like taxidermy. His legacy extends beyond Philadelphia, but he is remembered here, along with his children, housed in a place of honor in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.