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The Life Of Charles Peale

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Charles Peale, Self-Portrait, 1795

Peale was born in Maryland to Charles and Margaret Peale. He had a younger brother James Peale who was also an artist, best known for his miniature and still life paintings. At thirteen years of age, Peale apprentice to a saddle shop owner. Eventually, he opened his own saddle shop that expanded to sign painting, clock repair and harness making. On a trip to Philadelphia, Peale had visited numerous painters’ studios and discovered his new passion for arts. He had traded a saddle for portrait lessons with the artist John Hesselius. Peale’s saddle business and many other talents had failed because of his high debt that by 1765, he had escaped to Boston.

In Boston, he sees for the first time old master copies in John Smibert’s old studio and he decided to give portrait painting a shot once again. He was equally influenced by the works of Copley as well and began paintings portraits in a similar style. When he returned to Maryland he showed his art to an amateur artist, who was also a member of the Governors’ Council. The artist was so impressed with the works of Peale that he had convinced the Provincial Court Judge John Bordley and local patrons to sponsor Peale to go to England and study under Benjamin West. (Second president and Anglo-American painter, in the Royal Academy in London.)

Peale became an expert in portrait miniatures and his works were well praised and received in the exhibition of the London Society of Artists. The artist was even elected in the Society’s membership.

In 1769, Peale traveled throughout mid-Atlantic to search for commission. He was most fruitful in Philadelphia and settled there by 1776. During that year he joined the Revolutionary war and fought in the Trenton-Princeton campaign. Peale loved to paint even in the battlefield; he would bring his painting tools. He produced miniatures of war officers during the war, which were made larger after.

Peale was a productive painter with over 1,100 portraits that he displayed in his gallery in Philadelphia.

His subjects includes:

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George Washington in uniform, as colonel of the First Virginia Regiment (1772)

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Portrait of John Adams, 1791-1794

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Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, 1791

Peale produced seven life portraits of George Washington, which he reproduced. In 2006, a portrait of Peale’s George Washington was sold in an auction for $21.3 million. The highest price sold for any American portrait.

Facts about Peale:

  • One of the founders of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

  • Founder of the first natural history and technological organization museum in America, located in Independence Hall.

  • He made wooden false teeth.

  • Peale married three times and had 17 children.

  • First artist of the American Revolution.

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