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Charles Willson Peale

painter of many of the most prominent Americans of his day, including George Washington

Charles Willson Peale

Charles Willson Peale was born in Queen Anne's County, Maryland, on April 15, 1741. He dabbled in a variety of trades before taking up the study of painting in 1765, first under John Singleton Copley in Boston and then at the London studio of Benjamin West. On his return to America, Peale became known for his portraits of many prominent Americans of the day, including the first known portrait of George Washington, painted in 1772. Peale would ultimately paint 60 portraits of Washington.

Washington at Princeton (1779)
Washington at Princeton (1779)

In 1776, Peale moved to Philadelphia and served as a member of the Committee of Public Safety. He aided in raising a militia company, became a Lieutenant and afterwards a Captain and took part in the battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Germantown. In 1779 and 1780 he was a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, where he voted for the abolition of slavery. He subsequently freed the slaves he had brought from Maryland.

After the war, Peale exhibited portraits he had painted of revolutionary officers in a picture gallery in back of his house. An avid naturalist, he also displayed there scientific curiosities, stuffed animals, and prehistoric relics. In 1794, he moved his collection of 100,000 items to the hall of the American Philosophical Society. In 1801 he obtained the rights to a mastodon skeleton discovered on a New York farm, and he persuaded the society to finance the excavation. In 1802 he moved his museum to the second floor of Independence hall, and the collection was subsequently incorporated as the Philadelphia Museum. Three years later, he helped establish the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the nation's first public art gallery. At the age of 81 Peale painted a large canvas, "Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda," and at 83 a full-length portrait of himself. He died in Philadelphia on February 22, 1827.

Peale painted this portrait of himself 'opening' his museum at Independence Hall
Peale painted this portrait of himself 'opening' his museum at Independence Hall

SEE ALSO
George Washington
Battle of Princeton
American Philosophical Society

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This page was last updated on 04/14/2017.