Corcoran Gallery of Art

Washington, DC

(202) 639-1700


The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy, 1770-1870

The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy, 1770-1870, the most comprehensive exhibition of works by the Peale Family, America's first family of art is on display at the Corcoran Gallery through July 6, 1997. This massive collection exquisitely illustrates the profound influence that Charles Willson Peale, one of America's most important artists, and his dynasty had on shaping American culture and society. Of the more than 1,000 portraits painted by C.W. Peale, some of his most famous creations were portraits of his friends George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as other founding fathers.
Members of the Peale family are renowned not only for their great skill as artists, but also for founding America's first continuous public museums. Charles Willson Peale founded the first museum for the arts and sciences 200 years ago in Philadelphia. On exhibition were his own paintings and the skeleton of a mastodon which he had excavated and pieced together. He later founded the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which continues today. Peale's son Rembrandt imitated his father's institution in the Baltimore Museum in 1815, and another son Rubens established a museum in New York City in 1825.
The patriarch, who named 10 of his 17 children after artists, believed that anyone could be taught to paint. He did just that with his sons Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, and his brother James. They in turn passed down this artistic heritage to succeeding
generations, in particular to James's daughters Anna, Margaretta, and Sarah Miriam and nephew Charles Peale Polk. Each generation thereafter has produced an artist. As one art historian has written: "The Peales produced more artists than the Adams family did statesmen, or the Beechers preachers."
This landmark exhibition features works by 10 Peale family members. The three women artists in the show earned their livelihood by painting, which was very unusual for 18th-and 19th-century ladies. Sarah Miriam is acclaimed as America's first woman artist to make a career of painting.
The 173-item exhibit showcases the Peale's finest works, including The Staircase Group, the sight of which so moved General George Washington that he "took off his hat and bowed to it," according to C.W. Peale biographer and descendant Charles Coleman Sellers; and Rubens Peale with a Geranium which one art historian has called "one of the most original images in the history of American
The exhibition includes portraits, miniatures, conversation pieces, still life and landscapes, as well as the Grizzly Bear Ornaments and other memorabilia from the Rogers and Clark Expedition.
Organized by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, the exhibition's guest curator is the pre-eminent Peale scholar, Dr. Lillian B. Miller, Historian of American Culture at the Smithsonian Institutions National Portrait Gallery and Editor of the Peale Family Papers housed there. The catalogue is published by Abbeville Press. The project was made possible through generous grants from the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc. and the National Endowment for the Arts. The tour of the exhibition includes the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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