Charles Willson Peale was born in April 1741, in the town presently known as Queenstown, Maryland, part of the colonial territory of British America at the time. He was named after his father, Charles, and lived with his mother, Margaret, and brother, James Peale, who also became a painter.
It wasn’t clear to Peale that he would work with art from the start. During his early teens, he began to craft saddles and eventually opened up a saddle shop when he was old enough. The small business fell through, forcing Peale to elaborate on different crafts, like working with metals and clocks, but all roads lead to art and painting. During this period, he was already involved in politics and became part of the secret organization called the Sons of Liberty.
Upon realizing his enate talent and passion for painting, Peale dedicated himself with the intent of becoming a portrait painter. He then began his formal education with regional masters John Hesselius, and John Singleton Copley.
Charles married Rachel Brewer in 1762, and they had ten children together, all of whom were named after the father’s favorite artists. Among them, three became notable painters, like Raphaelle Peale, considered the pioneer for professional still-life painting. Also, Rembrandt Peale became a famous portrait painter, and his daughter Rosalba Carriera Peale (Charles’ granddaughter) continued in the family’s artistic path as well.
Peale’s fame grew, and he received financial support from friends and even the local judiciary system to travel abroad to England and study under Benjamin West in 1767. After three years, Peale returned to Maryland, where he began to lecture James Peale, his brother, on how to paint.
The American government was emerging, which inspired Peale to relocate to Philadelphia in 1776, where he helped raise troops for the American Revolutionary War, while still concluding portrait painting of important people. Peale served for his country on many occasions but never stopped being an artist, even when on the field. The painter eventually received the title of captain in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
After his time serving in the frontline, Peale returned to working with portrait painting full-time and became most famous for his portrayals of George Washington. The American leader sat with the artist a total of seven times, the first in 1772. Ultimately, Peale concluded over fifty paintings o Washington, using what he produced during their meetings as a reference.
Peale was a multitalented man. Not only was he an exquisite portrait painter, but he was also excellent in shoemaking and carpentry. Just as the past masters of the Renaissance, he was also passionate about science, deepening his studies in subjects like dentistry, optometry, and even taxidermy. His love for learning about natural history eventually grew to what became the Philadelphia Museum.
In 1790, Peale became a widow and remarried to Elizabeth de Peyster, who birthed six of his children. Tragically, Elizabeth passed away in 1804, and the artist married for the third time. Hannah More was a loving step-mother to Peale’s younger children from his previous marriages. Hannah died almost twenty years after they married.
Charles W. Peale died at 85 years old, in February 1827, in Philadelphia.