Meet “The Ingenious Mr. Peale”

Charles Willson Peale
Self-portrait of Peale (c. 1791) at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

As a young man in Maryland, Charles Willson Peale felt he could do just about anything. Evidently, he was correct.

Today, he’s known mostly for more than 1,100 paintings of Revolutionary War colleagues and notables he created. Over 100 of them are in the Second Bank of the U.S. at 420 Chestnut Street.

But Peale, who never saw a painting before he was 20 years old, was far more than a painter. He was also an inventor, a silversmith, a watchmaker, a soldier, and a leader in just about everything he touched.

The artist outlived three wives (with whom he had 17 children, 11 reaching maturity). At least nine were named after painters. Late in life, he began naming his children after scientists.

Along the way he helped found the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the first and oldest museum and art school in the U.S.

In addition, he set up the Philadelphia Museum, the country’s first museum of natural history. After outgrowing space in his home, Peale moved the museum to Philosophical Hall, and in 1802 to the second floor of what is now Independence Hall.

One of its most popular attractions was Peale’s display of a mastodon skeleton found in New York State. After his death, much of his museum was sold to P.T. Barnum.

Interesting Oddities:

  • Charles was named after a rich uncle, Wilson Peale, whose fortune and land he was expected to inherit. When that didn’t happen, Peale added an “L” to his middle name to distance himself from the Wilson family. Then he moved on with his life.
  • His artistic talent may have come from his father, Charles Peale, a noted forger exiled from England to Maryland for embezzling money from London’s General Post Office. The prosecutor expressed wonder at the elder Peale’s “artfulness” and “close resemblance of his forgeries to the genuine hands.”
  • Peale evidently liked the work of the painter Titian. He named two of his children Titian Ramsay Peale, the second one in 1799, after his 18-year old son and reportedly a favorite, died.
  • Peale’s full-length battlefield portrait of “George Washington at Princeton,” one of eight of Washington he painted between 1779 and 1781, was sold for $21.3 million in January 2006. That price set a world record for the sale of an American portrait.
  • Peale was Philly’s first nude model, says James Thomas Flexner in his book “America’s Old Masters.” Believing that artists should “draw from the living figure,” Peale searched the city for someone willing to pose nude for an academy art class. When an impoverished, but bashful baker agreed – then begged off at the last minute – Peale stepped into the breach and posed himself.

The prolific artist lived his final years at Belfield, his estate that’s now part of the campus at LaSalle University.

While not as well known as Ben Franklin (whom he painted), Peale was a universal genius and Renaissance man. And he’s given us the best visual record of our country’s Founding Fathers. If you haven’t yet seen his portraits at the Second Bank of the U.S., I heartily recommend a visit. They really make history come alive.

Fast Facts

Name: Charles Willson Peale
Born: April 15, 1741
Died: February 22, 1827
Buried: St. Peter’s Churchyard, 313 Pine St.
Claim to Fame: Painter, soldier, saddle-maker, museologist, inventor and impresario
Pa. Historical Marker Dedicated: 1991
Marker Status: Missing. Listed as SW corner of 3rd & Lombard.