Historical Markers
Charles Willson Peale Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Charles Willson Peale

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
SW corner of 3rd & Lombard Sts., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

Self portrait of Charles Willson Peale in front of an easel with his wife Rachel and daughter Angelica from the 1780s
Self-Portrait with Angelica and Portrait of Rachel, Charles Willson Peale, circa...
Though not as well known as markerBenjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale was one of the great Renaissance men of the early Republic. A man of broad interests and boundless energy, Peale founded the nation’s first natural history museum and in it placed his portraits of the men and women who had led the nation during the great war for independence. Today, Peale’s portraits remain the single most important visual record of the Founding Fathers.
This early portrait of Washington depicts him as an officer in the Virginia militia.
flip zoom
George Washington, by Charles Willson Peale, 1772.

Born in Maryland in 1741, Peale at the age of thirteen apprenticed under a saddle maker—he later described this position “abject servitude”--then opened his own shop in Annapolis at the age of twenty.  Insatiably curious, he taught himself sign painting, silversmithing, upholstering, watch making, and clock repair.  Discovering that he had an aptitude for drawing and painting, Peale exchanged a fine saddle he made for lessons in portrait painting from Swedish-born artist Gustavus Hesselius.  Around 1764, Peale joined the protests against Parliament’s Stamp Act, which incurred the ire of many of his former clients. 
When his saddlery failed due to his political activities, Peale fled to Boston where he received instruction from famous American artist John Singleton Copley.  In 1766, he returned to Maryland, where he won the support of several wealthy patrons, including markerJohn Beale Bordley, who contributed funds to send the young artist to study with the great markerBenjamin West in London.  After returning to Annapolis in 1769, Peale became one of the most popular portrait artists in the Middle Colonies.
Portrait of Gouverneur Morris and Robert Morris in formal attire.
Gouverneur Morris and Robert Morris, by Charles Willson Peale, 1783.

In 1775 Peale moved to Philadelphia, the largest city in colonial America, where his career as a portrait painter flourished. Here, he also threw himself into the fight for American independence.  In 1776, Peale joined the Pennsylvania militia as a private.  Elected by the men of his company as their lieutenant, he participated in the Trenton and Princeton campaigns, rising to the rank of captain before his enlistment ended in 1777.
Charles Willson Peale's self portrait in his museum, as he draws back a curtain to show many artifacts. A mounted turkey and taxidermy instruments are in the foreground.
The Artist in his Museum, by Charles Willson Peale, 1822.

Peale then served on several state committees and worked with his friend markerDavid Rittenhouse manufacturing gunpowder and adding telescopic sites to muskets.  During the winter of 1777-78, he was a frequent visitor to the Continental Army’s camp at Valley Forge, where he painted miniature portraits of many officers.  In 1779 and 1780, he served as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. 
After the conclusion of hostilities in 1781, Peale returned to painting fulltime.  Hoping to inspire future generations by capturing and presenting something of the character of the war’s heroes, he attempted to paint portraits of as many of the major American figures of the war as he could, including John Paul Jones, the markerMarquis de Lafayette, markerRobert Morris, markerThomas Mifflin, Richard Henry Lee, and Benjamin Franklin.
Encouraged by Franklin and Jefferson, Peale decided to open a natural history museum in Philadelphia, where he would create “the world in miniature.” In an effort to elevate and enlighten the public-- and to secure a reliable income for himself and his large family-- he opened a museum in 1786 in his home and outbuildings, at 3rd and Lombard Streets. Peale’s museum soon included specimens of animals, fossils, minerals, and the very first museum of American history, the story of which he depicted through his portraits.
Peale’s museum soon outgrew its quarters, so in 1794 he relocated it to the American Philosophical Society’s Philosophical Hall.  In 1802, he moved again, this time to the second floor of Pennsylvania State House (today’s Independence Hall). Peale then established branch museums in New York City and Baltimore.
Self portrait of Rembrandt Peale from 1828
flip zoom
Rembrandt Peale, Self-portrait, 1828.

One of the first of its kind, the museum was home to a vast collection of animals, birds, fossils, insects, minerals, mollusk shells, reptiles, and paintings. Donations to the museum came from around the world, including an “orang-outang” from southeast Asia and a “Platipus” from Australia. To house the living animals he received Peale set up a zoo in the statehouse garden and when they died, preserved them for exhibition by teaching himself to become an expert taxidermist. Peale’s museum also became a repository for artifacts brought back by Lewis and Clark from great their expedition across North America.
Oil on canvas of a 134 year old man, wearing layered clothing and a stocking hat.
Yarrow Mamount, by Charles Willson Peale, 1819.

While running the museum, Peale also pursued other favorite "hobby horses." An avid amateur inventor, Peale built an artificial arm for a member of the state legislature, designed bridges and a more efficient “smoke eater” stove, ground lenses for glasses, became an expert taxidermist, patented a steam “vapor bath,” pioneered the making of dentures out of porcelain, and created wax and papier-mâché models of human organs for markerCaspar Wistar’s  lectures at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. Peale also continued to paint portraits and accurate natural settings as backdrops for specimens in his museum. In 1805 he helped found the markerPennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Peale also drew his children and other family members into his passions. Nine of his seventeen children he named after famous painters, and four-- Raphaelle (1774–1825), Rembrandt (1778–1860), Rubens (1784–1865), and Titian (1799-1885)--also became successful painters. Titian also became a celebrated naturalist and pioneer of American photography, and with his brothers Rembrandt, Rubens Peale (1784-1865), and Franklin (1796-1870) ran the Peale museums. Charles’ younger brother James (1749-1831) also became a noted miniature painter in Philadelphia. Two of James's daughters, Anna Claypoole (1791-1878) and Sarah Miriam (1800-1885), were among the earliest professional women painters in America.
In 1810, Peale retired to his farm “Belfield” in Germantown, where he continued to draw and paint, experimented with scientific farming methods, and tinkered on mill machinery. After his third wife Hannah died in 1821, Peale lived with his son Rubens until his death in 1827 at the age of eighty-five. 
Back to Top