Curious Revolutionaries

In my previous post on the MoAR, I had included a picture of some life sized figures, one of whom was solicitously wrapping another in a blanket or jacket. It was a depiction of Charles Willson Peale belatedly recognizing his own brother, and the picture’s caption was something about how much I adore Mr. Peale (hereafter known as CWP).


From the MoAR

Why do I like CWP so much? That is an excellent question. Perhaps it was because I was thrilled when I could consistently put a name to the artist behind all those portraits, which are done in a style I find generally attractive.


Yes. So much yes.

Perhaps I like him so much because he is a true renaissance man who, according to his Wikipedia page: “was an American painter, soldier, scientist, inventor, politician and naturalist … [who] had expertise not only in painting but also in many diverse fields, including carpentry, dentistry, optometry, shoemaking, and taxidermy.” In fact, it seems like one of the few things that didn’t take was saddlemaking, which prompted him to study art instead. There is a chance he is one of those lucky few who was able to support himself by his art rather than anything “practical.” I also really like the fact that he was *such* a fanboy that he named all of his sixteen offspring, including daughters after famous artists/naturalists/scientists, who in turn made their own names in art, invention, and science. Here’s a quick write-up on The Painting Peales, as a cohesive American family unit.

I confess that prior to researching this post, I knew him as merely an artist who successfully served in the Pennsylvania militia. I was unaware of his other endeavors, but just those two greatly different skillsets of Army and Art (but mostly art) were enough to initially pique my interest. While his earlier works aren’t wholly lifelike, they have a certain style that reminds me vaguely of some of my other favorite artists who are mostly animators.

CWP’s style is so familiar to me that street light banners bearing a portrait of him around the MoAR neighborhood caught my eye and I had to go investigate.


In my search, I was sidetracked by an official looking building that was, at one point, the national bank of these United States. It was a good thing I checked it out, as it held an abundance of Peale portraiture. From the artist’s perspective, it was quite interesting to see a large collection of his works spanning such a time interval. Even with two portraits done a scant three years apart, the obviously more recent one displayed better skill, which attests to the power of practice. The other thing I noted is that so many of the images of his contemporaries that we recognize were done by him or his offspring. (His son Rembrandt Peale was a more talented painter.)


John Jay, first Supreme Court Justice, and co-author of the Federalist Papers.


James Madison, legislative genius, statesman, co-author of the Federalist Papers.


A bastard, son of a whore and a Scotsman, impoverished, in squalor, who grew up to be a hero and a scholar. Also co-author of the Federalist Papers.

Thus done with my detour through a portrait gallery, I at last arrived at my destination, the American Philosophical Society, America’s first learned society founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743. (Note, it has existed longer than the United States…) The APS building shares ground with Independence Hall so that also seems like kind of a big deal. And on the second floor of the APS building was an exhibit dedicated to “Curious Revolutionaries: The Peales of Philadelphia.”


*cue dramatic music*

It was an exhibit on their unique familial traits, like how they were all artists and naturalists and craftsmen and tinkerers and vaguely intellectuals, and how they were all clearly products of both this new country and of the Enlightenment. Much like how our parents keep all of our old school drawings and projects, so too were Peale children’s work on display. Except their work was far more sophisticated than anything we produce these days. There were technical drawings from a diary, miniature (working) wooden stoves, each barely 6″ high, paintings of wildlife that would challenge John James Audubon himself, specimens from their self-taught taxidermy. I come from a large family and we all have different perspectives on shared interests, which leads to some fantastic discussions and fights. Imagine multiplying that by at least three (he had sixteen kids!) – the chaos, the noise, but also the unrestrained pursuit of their minds and talents in at least sixteen different directions.


A sketch from CWP’s diary. He called on Benjamin Franklin unannounced and the door was unlocked. Mr. Franklin was engaged in amorous activity with a lady. Rather than leave the notorious flirt to his business, CWP stayed and sketched it.  I wonder if Franklin was aware. I bet he thought it was a lark.

More than a tribute to the Peale family pursuits of, well, everything, the exhibit at the APS was, in many ways, a continuation of the Charles Willson Peale Museum, a museum he had founded to showcase not only his art work, but an ever increasing collection of natural history specimens, including a mastodon skeleton. Not only had he painted all of America’s elite, he had founded the nation’s first natural history museum in which, as a true product of the Enlightenment, the specimens were classified scientifically, an uncommon practice in those days.


Not only were they artists, soldiers, and inventors, they of course dug up a mastodon skeleton, assembled it then did a comparative analysis with elephants


Other uncommon practices in those days were holding educational lectures, charging admission to generate funds, and having different events to urge the visitor towards repeated visits for both educational and awe-inspiring purposes. In some ways, CWP set the groundwork for modern museums. I’m not sure he would have wholly approved of overpriced gift shops, but he would have appreciated the revenue, as his sons tried to run the museum after his death but eventually had to sell off the majority of the specimens for money. Only the portraiture survived en masse. A quick perusal of the internet says that only a handful of extant artifacts can be traced back to the CWP Museum and the rest have been lost to time.

While the loss of the museum and its collections would probably rank somewhere in the Top 10 Intellectual Tragedies of history (#1 being the burning of the Library at Alexandria), the APS exhibit on the odd and voraciously inquisitive Peale family provided a good glimpse into their time period and what made them so revolutionary. It, as well as all the digging around on the internet I did for this post, really inspired me to spend more time researching this, just as soon as I catch up with everything else on my to-read list. Additionally, the APS is hosting a conference this fall on the Art of Revolutions – art, imagery, and self-identity during the Revolutionary period – so I’m hoping this topic becomes something of a scholarly theme, if it isn’t already.

I am heartily disappointed more people don’t know Charles Willson Peale by name, but hope that the common layman can recognize his works. His role in the Revolutionary era was secondary to men like Washingon, Adams, Hamilton, but his influence on the burgeoning nation was probably just as widespread in subtler ways that, as evidenced by the conference above, lead to further in-depth study of him and his time. I mean, who could say no to art, history, art history, some naturalism, public museums, a mastodon skeleton, and overthrowing the British? Certainly not I.


A self portrait of aging CWP welcoming you into his museum of curiosities.


Post Script: I am depressed beyond words that this was necessary. This is why we need to keep cursive in the curriculum, people! Can you even imagine what we’ll lose if these skills are lost??



Additional Reading:

Quick bio on his life:


Image Source

Image Source


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