The Peales were a very gifted American family, with over six of the members working as successful artists – three of which were women. It was rare enough for women to be successful artists during the 18th and 19th centuries and rarer still for them to be related. Their triumph over the art world would perhaps not have come about if it were not for the first artist of the family – Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Though Peale began his career as a saddle maker, he soon discovered that he had a talent for painting and sought tutelage under John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) and later Benjamin West (1738-1820), two prominent American portrait artists. Peale, too, went on to become a celebrated portrait artist best known for his portraits of George Washington. Some even consider him to be one of the first “trompe l’oeil” painters because of his well-known piece The Staircase Group, a portrait of two of his sons. The painting is framed like a doorway, depicting Raphaelle (1774-1825) and Titian Peale (1799-1885) climbing up the stairs to their bedroom, presumably, and looking back at the viewer. The “trompe l’oeil” aspect of the painting is the real wooden stair Peale has added at the foot of the painting, seemingly inviting the viewer to follow Raphaelle and Titian up the stairs.
Charles Willson Peale left a legacy of artists in his wake. Once he had learned painting from the masters, he taught his younger brother, James Peale (1749-1831), who assisted Charles in his studio. Peale’s sons also followed in his footsteps, becoming noteworthy portrait and still-life artists during a time when such skills were rare in America. Raphaelle Peale, for one, is recognized as the first professional American still-life painter. Though he painted portraits as well, his incredibly detailed and realistic still-lifes transformed the subject into a worthy art form. Peale’s Bowl of Peaches is a simple and bare still-life, unlike most which are overflowing with a variety of plump fruits. Bowl of Peaches only depicts peaches contained within a bowl in the center of the canvas along with two springs of leaves adorned around the bowl. Though simple, the composition is detailed and pristine and utilizes some chiaroscuro, which serves to bring the piece to a higher standard than merely “still-life.”
Similarly, James Peale’s children also prospered in the art world – which is surprising, for the time, considering they were female. Margaretta Angelica Peale (1795-1882), like the rest of her sisters, became a successful still-life painter, her style resembling the rest of her family’s. Melons and Pears is her only known watercolor painting, as she worked mostly in oils, and at one glance it becomes clear why she was so successful. Unlike Raphaelle’s still-life, Margaretta’s is more complex, containing a variety of fruit adorned with many leaves. This was, perhaps, to prove herself as an artist by demonstrating that she could paint complex subjects with ease.
“In the best Peale tradition, which favored the realistic depiction of natural objects, her painting is highly detailed, from the pattern of dots along the rim of the platter, to the nubby texture of the cucumber and the dry variegated surface of the cantaloupe. Her modeling also exhibits a knowledge of light and shade, producing a sense of weight and depth not attainable, nor even desirable, in flat decorative theorem paintings.”¹
The Peales dominated the early American art world due to their immaculate skill and mastery of portraiture and still life, most of the members even dabbling in the early forms of trompe l’oiel. Along with the four successful members mentioned in this article, Charles’s three other sons and James’s three other daughters were also well-known artists of the time, still revered today. The New Britain Museum of American Art owns artwork by four members of the Peale family, so we encourage visitors to come see the pieces by these artistic pioneers.
Make sure to see the upcoming exhibition WomenArtists@NewBritainMuseum, including works by some of the Peales. The exhibition opens on Dec. 18.
What do you think of this dynasty? How do their familial connections affect their art? Their training? Can you think of any other “artistic dynasties”? Which of the Peales do you think was the most succesful? Why? Which is your favorite?
1. NBMAA eMuseum: Melons and Pears by Margaretta Angelica Peale.