An American dynasty: the Peale family of painters

Considered the first family of American artists, the Peales are central figures within the history of early American art

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No family was more influential in early American art than the storied Peale family of artists. Headed by Charles Willson Peale, the family was instrumental in establishing a tradition of distinctly American painting that encompassed portraiture, landscapes and still lifes.

A Renaissance man who studied under John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West, Charles Willson Peale was best known for his portraits of Revolutionary War heroes and the development of one of the nation’s first museums. He also founded two art academies and was a passionate educator — a practice he shared with his extended family, which included his 17 children. From this forerunner grew an artistic dynasty that established the Peales as some of the premier artists working in the nation’s early years.

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Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), The Peale Family, c. 1773-1809. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan

On 19 January, several important examples from the Peale family will be offered at Christie’s in From Peale to Peto: American Masters from the Pollack Collection. ‘It’s incredibly rare to have this many artists from the Peale family represented in one setting,’ says Caroline Seabolt, Specialist and Head of Sale for the American Art department. ‘The Pollack collection is one of the most varied offerings of works by the family to ever come to market.’

Through their wide-ranging works, Peale and his descendants were instrumental in furthering American art and documenting early American life, capturing the material culture, landscape and populace of the day. The Pollack collection demonstrates the depth and breadth of the Peale family’s artistic achievements while cementing their legacy within the canon of American art.

American luminaries

After fighting in the Revolutionary War, Charles Willson Peale was committed to celebrating the United States by depicting its natural history and notable countrymen. Over the course of his artistic career, he is believed to have painted more than 1,000 portraits of American luminaries.

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Charles Peale Polk (1767-1822), George Washington, 1793. Oil on canvas. 30 x 23 in (76.2 x 58.4 cm). Sold for $630,000 in From Peale to Peto: American Masters from the Pollack Collection on 19 January at Christie's in New York

Several members of his family would follow in his footsteps, including his son, Rembrandt Peale; his nephew, Charles Peale Polk; and his brother, James Peale. The most recognizable portrait of the Pollack collection was painted by Charles Peale Polk. The orphaned son of Charles Willson Peale’s sister, Polk was raised and trained by his uncle.

In George Washington (1793), an image inspired by his uncle’s earlier renderings, Polk paints Washington as a secure leader, demonstrating the significance and self-assurance of his subject. His depictions of Washington were some of the most well-known at the time and went on to influence future likenesses of the Commander in Chief.

Rembrandt took up the mantle of his father as one of the most successful portrait painters of the time. In Portrait of Dewitt Clinton (1823), he portrays the former mayor of New York City and governor of New York against his oft-used background of soft colour. In addition to Clinton, Rembrandt painted both Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte.

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James Peale (1749-1831), Mary Jane Simes and her brother Edgar C. Simes. Oil on canvas. 29¼ x 24⅛ in (74.3 x 61.3 cm). Sold for $100,800 in From Peale to Peto: American Masters from the Pollack Collection on 19 January at Christie's in New York

In Mary Jane Simes and her brother Edgar C. Simes, James, who worked in both still life and portraiture, depicts his grandchildren sitting together at a piano. For many of the Peales, family remained an enduring source of inspiration, and this work underscores the importance of their bond.

A foray into still life

While some members of the Peale family focused on portraiture, others were dedicated to the still-life genre. Thanks to the Peales’ prodigious skill in this area, the genre gained acceptance across the country by the beginning of the 19th century.

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Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), Currants and Biscuits, 1813. Oil on panel. 7½ x 10½ in (19.1 x 26.7 cm). Sold for $352,800 in From Peale to Peto: American Masters from the Pollack Collection on 19 January at Christie's in New York

Raphaelle Peale and his uncle James Peale were the first two artists to put American still-life painting on the map,’ says Seabolt. Despite being younger than his uncle James, Raphaelle — the oldest son of Charles — is considered to be the first American still life painter. He began his career by joining painting trips with his father, and executing exhibition backgrounds and replicating dioramas for Charles’ natural history museum.

His Currants and Biscuits (1813) represents one of the earliest forays into still-life painting in America. In the detailed portrayal of a table laid with food and drink, Raphaelle creates a historical record, documenting how people ate and lived at that time.

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James Peale (1749-1831), Fruits of Autumn, c. 1825-27. Oil on panel. 15½ x 22 in (39.4 x 55.9 cm). Sold for $189,000 in From Peale to Peto: American Masters from the Pollack Collection on 19 January at Christie's in New York

Though James also dabbled in portraiture, his primary focus was the still life. In Fruits of Autumn (circa 1825-27), the artist’s fascination with the changing effects of light and shadow on colour are evident. ‘He was interested in direct observation and recording how organic objects like fruits and vegetables changed over time,’ Seabolt says.

Fruits of Autumn is also notable for its distinguished provenance. The painting’s first owner, Julianna Force, was the director of the Whitney Studio Club, which eventually became the Whitney Museum of American Art. The painting was part of the Whitney’s collection until acquired by Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and passed down by descent through his family.

The Peale lineage included a number of notable women artists as well. Among them, Sarah Miriam Peale — daughter of James — was the first independent working female artist in American history. She and her sister Anna Claypoole Peale were the first two women to gain membership to the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1824.

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Sarah Miriam Peale (1800-1885), Watermelon, 1822. Oil on panel. 13½ x 19½ in (34.3 x 49.5 cm). Sold for $277,200 in From Peale to Peto: American Masters from the Pollack Collection on 19 January at Christie's in New York

Sarah Miriam’s painting Watermelon (1822) is a rare early example of her work within the genre. ‘She learned the practice from her father, James Peale, and cousin Rembrandt Peale,’ says Seabolt. ‘This painting is an important record not only of early American still-life painting but also of a female professional artist working in the early 19th-century United States.’

The American landscape

Many members of the Peale family shared Charles Willson Peale’s passion for natural history. In his Philadelphia museum — memorialized in the self-portrait The Artist in his Museum (1822) — he displayed natural curiosities and specimens alongside portraits of American heroes.

Titian Ramsay Peale, the youngest of Charles’ sons, became a naturalist and explorer in addition to his artistic pursuits. On trips to the American south and west as well as travels around his native Philadelphia, Titian recorded the flora and fauna of his surroundings with a scientific mode of observation.

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Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885), Five Bobwhites at the Delaware Water Gap, 1868. Oil on canvas. 22 x 27 in (55.9 x 68.6 cm). Sold for $163,800 in From Peale to Peto: American Masters from the Pollack Collection on 19 January at Christie's in New York

‘He was operating in a comparable manner to John James Audubon as a documenter of American wildlife and scenery,’ says Seabolt. In Five Bobwhites at the Delaware Water Gap (1868), Titian illustrates his ornithological interests in the natural wonders of his native region in the Delaware Water Gap.

This is, perhaps, the Peale family’s greatest contribution to the arts. They were not just talented painters elevating the creative output of a young country; they also paved the way for future artistic exploration. In this way, the Peale family’s influence on American art has been a lasting one, and their legacy continues to be felt today.

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