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Monday, September 19, 2011

Charles Willson Peale

Self-portrait with Angelica,1782-85,
Charles Willson Peale, seen here
painting his wife while his daughter
looks over his shoulder, offering
perhaps a bit of unwanted help.
There's not an artist living or dead that hasn't, at one time or another, given thought to whether or not his or her offspring might harbor some inherited glimmer of art talent, and indeed, tried to magnify any such talent into a reflection of their own yearnings for greatness and immortality. Sometimes it works. Usually it doesn't. My own progeny has only a passing interest in art and almost no natural ability in such things. In fact, he very nearly flunked his high school art class one year. On the other hand, art history is full of stories of sons and daughters going on to far outshine the family talent who gave them birth. So it does run in families, but it doesn't always run from one generation to the next. In American art, the greatest example of creative juices flowing straight through a family would be that of the Peale's, Charles Willson, his brother James, and several of their children. In fact, if you count both sons and daughters, some of whom were more successful than others, the number of famous painting Peales mounts up to ten!

Charles Willson Peale was born in 1741. As a young man, his first interest in art was piqued when he journeyed to Norfolk, Virginia, to purchase leather for his saddle shop. There he saw the work of portrait painters which he considered quite poor. In a typical "I can do better than that" frame of mind, he returned to his native Philadelphia and tried his hand at it. He read all the instruction manuals on painting he could come by, and took lessons from an artist in Annapolis. Encouraged, he set off for Boston to try his luck in this wealthy commercial center. He had little success. At one point, he was down to selling his watch to have money to return to Philadelphia. But just before he did, he received a commission for a small portrait. He was paid twelve dollars. Back home in Philadelphia, despite his poor showing in Boston, his friends and neighbors convinced him he had some talent. In fact, so much so they took up a collection and sent him to England for three years to study under the great Benjamin West, who had, himself, moved there from the colonies a few years before. When Peale returned in 1769, he tried again, setting up shop in his hometown this time. This time, he started getting commissions. During the next few years, as his skills matured, he became the most outstanding portrait painter not just in Philadelphia but in all the colonies.

The Staircase Group,1795,
Charles Willson Peale.
George Washington, in passing by,
 is said to have greeted the "fool
the eye" painting of two of Peale's
seven sons.
In due time, Peale took in his younger brother, James, as an apprentice and assistant -- stretching canvases, painting backgrounds, framing, and keeping books. Unfortunately for the younger Peale, the Revolutionary War interrupted his portraits studies. After the war, the two continued to work together, married, and started raising families. Peale expanded his interests to include various scientific pursuits--taxidermy, archaeology, paleontology, inventing--and eventually opened a fairly impressive museum (for its time) to showcase all his natural and artistic collectibles. Mostly though he painted, and also fathered children--sixteen of them, by three wives! He studied art history too. Hoping to encourage their pursuit of the arts, he named four of his sons, Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphaelle, and Titian, all of whom did become painters. Perhaps because there was no similar tradition of famous female artists from which to draw, his daughters received more ordinary names such as Sarah, Angelica, Rosalba, Sophonisba, and Margaretta. Three of them also became artists.

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