James Peale, younger brother of Charles Willson Peale, was born in Chestertown, Maryland, in 1749. As a child, he lived with his brother and learned the trade of a saddler. Under the influence of his brother, he gave up his trade to become a painter. From a letter by Charles Willson Peale dated April 20, 1771, he mentions James "copies well and has painted a little from the life." (Charles Coleman Sellers, James Peale: A Light in Shadow, from Four Generations of Commissions, Baltimore, Maryland, 1975, p.29)
During the Revolutionary War, Peale served as an officer in the Continental Army under George Washington. After resigning from the army, it is believed he followed the army to Yorktown as a volunteer, bringing back studies of the scene which appear in some of his paintings. Peale painted two portraits of his leader, one is owned by the City of Philadelphia and hangs in the National Portrait Gallery at Independence Hall and the other is owned by the New York Historical Society.
Color interested both Peale brothers, with James producing technical and scientific papers on the subject. "Columbian Magazine, 1789 (pp.189-191) contains carefully studied directions for 'An Improved Process for making Prussian Blue; by Mr. J.P. of Philadelphia.' Twenty years later he is still at it, mulling the problem of a madder lake which would be proof against fading. (James Peale: A Light in Shadow, from Four Generations of Commissions, p.32)
James Peale's small, but wide-ranging oeuvre included still lifes, portraits, landscapes, historical paintings and miniatures, and from 1818 he concentrated on landscapes and still lifes. Charles Coleman Sellers writes of his still life paintings, "His fruit pieces, lush evocations of the earth's abundance, won a popularity denied to Raphaelle Peale's stark, intense compositions." (James Peale: A Light in Shadow, from Four Generations of Commissions, p.33)
Most of his lifetime was spent in Philadelphia, though he worked and resided for a time in the South. He was married and had six children, three of them painters. Peale died in Philadelphia on May 24, 1831.