Editor's note: The following article was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on June 6, 2007. According to the National Portrait Gallery,Washington, DC, the article was written by the author while employed by the Gallery and is in the pubic domain. The National Portrait Gallery is a facility of the United States Government.


The Peale Legacy: The Art of an American Family, 1770-1870

by Lillian Miller


For one hundred years, from the colonial period to the Gilded Age, members of the Peale family of artists and naturalists figured prominently in the cultural life of the American nation. The Peale Family (Charles Willson Peale and his sons Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian, James Peale, Charles's brother, and his daughters Anna Claypoole, Margaretta, and Sarah Miriam, and Charles Peale Polk, nephew of both men) worked in the urban centers as well as the unsettled areas of the North American continent. In Annapolis and Baltimore, Maryland, Charleston, Williamsburg and Norfolk, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Washington, D. C., and St. Louis they left behind a legacy of not only thousands of works of art, but also, the conviction that art and science were important components of an interesting society and especially important for a self-governing community whose strength depended upon the virtue of its people.

Wherever they worked or exhibited their paintings, the Peales encouraged a taste for art that contributed to the expansion of artistic interests and patronage in the nineteenth century. Their museums became the model, inspiration, and example for similar institutions throughout the country, and the educational institutions with which they are identified, especially the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, continue to exert influence today. For one hundred years, these two generations of Peale artists carried on an artistic tradition, producing works in a diversity of genres: portraits in the large and in miniature, history paintings, landscape, and still life. They emphasized some important themes that are still relevant to today's audiences; they also created, in many cases, beautiful works that remain enduring contributions to American art and cultural history.

One important theme that becomes immediately obvious upon examining the collected works of these ten most important Peale artists is their emphasis on family. We see it appearing in Charles Willson Peale's The Peale Family, the first large painting the artist attempted upon returning to Maryland from London where he had studied art with Benjamin West. This work encapsulates not only Peale's British training but also his conception of the family and the proper relationship of its different members to each other that he passed on to other family members.

Family was an important subject for Charles Willson Peale. Growing up in the Annapolis community, he had absorbed the Chesapeake planter's emphasis on family as an important social and economic entity. Harmony in family life was an essential requirement for social harmony. Peale had invited his entire family to share his home in Annapolis, confident of "a more comfortable situation," and later, in his unpublished autobiography, he explained that he was so pleased with the "harmony" that prevailed that he decided to paint "the Portraits of the whole in one piece, emblematical of family concord." Adopting the format of a conversation piece, a composition that arose initially in response to the "cult of family" and pride in genealogy that prevailed among British middle and upperclass social groups in the eighteenth century, Peale incorporated into his group portrait emblems and ideas that resonate throughout his work.

The painting reveals how Peale used the portrait to narrate a story or teach a moral lesson, how he, in other words, made the portrait serve as a history painting. It is probable that Peale had a history painting in mind when he first began this canvas. He had returned from London much influenced by the effort of English portraitists to raise their status to the level of the history painter by crafting their portraits to appeal, as Sir Joshua Reynolds later lectured, to the mind. Almost all of Peale's portraits contain symbolic elements that extend their meaning beyond the simple likeness. Immersed as he was in the literature of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Peale used the language of art to convey the reform philosophy of writers such as John Locke and Jean -Jacques Rousseau, especially as these dealt with parental responsibilities, family behavior, and education of the young.


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