Revolutionary War Historical Article

Charles Willson Peale
He put a face on the American Revolution

by Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the June 2008 Edition of the Liberty Tree Magazine

Anyone involved in writing about the American Revolution will tell you that finding interesting subject matter is relatively easy. Finding art 'to illustrate' it is often a nightmare. There were very skilled artists in America during this period. Fewer yet wealthy individuals to employ artists to paint portraits or record battle scenes. In the English army, many of the officers were wealthy land owners, and frequently hired artists to commemorate their military exploits - - but very few individuals want a painting hanging over their fireplace depicting their being defeated. As a result, there are an extraordinarily few contemporary paintings of the American Revolution. During our generation a number of extremely good artists have come forth to fill the pictorial gap.

Artist Charles Willson Peale

We were very fortunate to have an American artist who obviously understood the historical significance of the American Revolution and made an effort to paint the portraits of it’s leadership. He was Charles Willson Peale.

He was the son of Charles Peale and Margaret Triggs. His father had been deported to the American Colonies in lieu of a death sentence for forgery.

Charles Willson Peale was born in Chestertown, Queen Anne County, Maryland, on April 16th, 1741.

When Charles turned thirteen, his father apprenticed him to a local saddle maker. Charles quickly mastered the skills required, and at twenty opened his own saddle shop. He also taught himself other skills, which included making and repairing watches, silversmithing, upholstery and sign painting. It appeared that saddle making was not that profitable. About 1864, his natural gift for sketching led him to study painting under Gustavus Hesselius, an Annapolis artist specializing in portraits.

In 1767 Charles’ business efforts failed and he was forced into bankruptcy. To escape his creditors, he fled to Boston, Massachusetts. While there he went to work assisting the artist John Singleton Copley. Copley was impressed with young Charles' natural ability and recommended and probably assisted Charles in going to London, England, where he studied painting under Benjamin West. Charles studied art with West for two years and then returned to Annapolis.

In 1772 Peale painted George Washington in the uniform of a Colonel of the Virginia Militia. This painting is the earliest known portrait of Washington. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Charles, then living in Philadelphia, joined the Pennsylvania Militia and fought with Washington at Trenton, Princeton and Germantown. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant.

While on campaign, he took to painting miniature portraits of his fellow officers in the Continental Army. After leaving the army he served on several committees in Philadelphia and in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

When John Copley left America for England , Charles was quite possibly the most popular portrait painter in the colonies. Among his surviving paintings, as certainly some have been lost or destroyed in the two centuries since he was painting, are seven sittings with George Washington, as well as portraits and miniatures of Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Paul Jones, John Hancock, and John Adams and numerous others.

Editor's Note: Click on the following links to view photo images of portraits by Charles Willson Peal for the persons listed:

Brigadier General Lachlan McIntosh; Major General William Smallwood;
Minister Benjamin Franklin;
Major General Benjamin Lincolm;
Major General Marquis de Lafayette; Major General Nathanael Greene;
Brigadier General James M. Varnum; Colonel William Washington;
Colonel Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee; Major General Arthur St. Clair;
General George Washington; Major General Horatio Gates;
Lieutenant General Comte de Rochambeau; Brigadier General Otho Williams;
Major General Louis de Duportail; Patriot John Adams;
Brigadier General Joseph Reed; Brigadier General Daniel Morgan;
Captain William Clark; President Thomas Jefferson;
Major General Henry Knox; Brigadier General James Wilkerson


On January 20th, 1779, General Washington wrote to the Pennsylvania Council thanking them for arranging for Charles Peale to paint a portrait of him. He sat for said painting between January 20th and February 2nd. The painting known as "George Washington at Trenton" was the second painting of Washington by Peale. The first known painting of him was painted in 1774. This painting is shown below. The newspaper, the Pennsylvania Packet, reported that Spanish Agent, Don Juan Miralles ordered five copies of the painting.

General George Washinton at Trenton, probably
Peale's most Famous Painting, was sold at auction
on Jan. 21st, 2006 for the incredible sum of $24,000,000!


We know from the dates of some of his paintings of General Washington and some of the officers on the General's staff that he frequented headquarters on occasion during the war. Major Caleb Gibbs, who commanded the General's Guard (the Commander-in-Chief Guard), noted in one of his surviving journals, that Peale painted a miniature of him, and it cost him his "collected net worth, $43.00." We also know that Washington had already become a national icon and was visited by various artists who painted his likeness. Gibbs, whose duties included running the headquarters, probably encouraged these visiting artists to paint new banners for his Guards, as they wore out from extensive use - -perhaps Peale painted one of them.

Unlike most artists Peale would sketch the portrait of the individual, have them approve the sketch, and then paint the majority of the painting. He would then have a second sitting for the finishing touches. This method permitted the subjects of his paintings to take the time necessary for the sittings from their very busy schedules, as they were waging a war at the time. This explains the number of portraits he was able to complete.

Although a different subject than the portraits painted by Peale, his other endeavors are worth reporting. He established the first natural history museum in the country. On December 31st, 1786 , Peale wrote George Washington: "Dr. Sir. I have lately undertaken to form a museum and have acquired the means of pursuing in this natural forms, Birds, Beasts and fishes, my intention is to collect everything that is curious to this Country, and ,to arrange them in the best manner I am able to make the collection amusing and instructive. . ." He then went on to ask Washington to send him the bodies of his Chinese pheasants when they died.

Washington replied on January 9th, 1787, ". . . I can not say that I shall be happy to have it in my power to comply with your request by sending you the bodies of my pheasants; but I am afraid it will not be long before they will compose part of your museum, as they all appear to be drooping. . . ." Later in 1787 Washington sent the bodies of the birds and he and Peale exchanged friendly letters. None of Washington's journals, diaries or letters confirm that he visited the museum while serving as President in Philadelphia, but it can safely be assumed that he did visit his 'pheasants' while there.

Peale had always had an interest in natural history, and believed that examples should be preserved and exhibited for the public. In 1801 he organized a scientific expedition at his own expense for the excavation of two mastodon skeletons in New York State. In 1802 he displayed them at Peale's Museum which was moved to Philadelphia that same year. Over the years the museum's collection grew to include more than 100,000 objects, including 269 paintings (many of them his), 1,894 birds, 250 quadrupeds, 650 fishes, more than 1,000 sea shells and a library of 313 books.

When he painted a portrait of an eminent American, he would frequently paint a copy before delivering the completed original. As a result, he was able to display a gallery of portraits of well known Americans in his museum. Besides these portraits his museum contained waxworks, and natural history specimens.

Among his varied interests Charles created his own method of taxidermy and was ahead of his time by displaying each animal in a simulated natural environment.

Peale was also a talented writer and authored several books, among which were 'An Essay on Building Wooden Bridges', 'An Epistle to a Friend on the Means of Preserving Health' and ' An Essay to Promote Domestic Happiness'.

 He was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1805 and then taught there for several years.

He married three times and with his first two wives produced seventeen children.

His first wife was Rachel Brewer (1744-1790) whom he married on January 12th, 1762. By her he fathered eleven children: Margaret (1763-1763), James (1765-1767), Eleanor (1770-1770), Margaret (1772-1772), Raphaelle (1774-1825), Angelica (1775-1853), Rembrandt (1778-1860), Titian (1780-1798), Rubens (1784-1865), Sophonisba (1786-1859), and Rosalba (1788-1790).

His second wife was Elizabeth DePeyster whom he married on May 30th, 1791. By her he fathered six children: Vandyke (1892-1792), Charles (1794-1832), Benjamin Franklin (1795-1870), Sybila (1797-­1856), Titian (1799-1885), and Elizabeth (1802-?).

After his second wife died he married Hannah Moore on August 12th, 1805 , but had no children by her.

Charles named several of his children after prominent artists or scientists. He taught all of his surviving children to paint, and three; Rembrandt, Raphaelle and Titian Ramsay II, became famous in their own right.

At age 69, Charles purchased a 110 acre farm three quarters of a mile outside Germantown , Pennsylvania. The estate was called "Nieve's Place" which he changed to "Belfield", named after his first art teacher Gustavus Hesselius whose plantation was named "Bellefield".

At eighty-three he executed a full­length portrait of himself, now in the Academy of the Fine Arts, depicted below. He died less than three years later at Belfield on February 2nd, 1827.

Charles Willson Peal at his museum


Charles Willson Peale was truly a man for all seasons and his pictorial contributions to the records of the American Revolution are without equal.



"The Artist of the Revolution; the early life of Charles Willson Peale"   by: Charles C. Sellers -1947

"Charles Willson Peale - Artist - Soldier"   by: Horace Sellers - Pennsylvania Magazine of History 1914

"The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family"  volume by: Lillian b. Miller. Editor

George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.

"The Peales"   by: Oliver O. Jensen - American Heritage, Vol. 6,   April 1955.

"Portraits an dMminiatures by Charles Willson Peale".   American Philosophical Society, 1952

"George Washington, a Biography",   by: Douglas Southall Freeman – 1954

"The Encyclopedia of the American Revolution"   by: Col. Mark M. Boatner, III, 1966

Editor note: In the June, 2008 edition of American History Magazine, there is an article about the Peale Museum. Our article was prepared prior to the issuance of that publication and it is simply a coincidence.


Back to Index of Biographies

Back to Historical Archives


link to aboutus