OK, not a born and bred Philly guy, but Charles Willson Peale moved to Philadelphia at the start of the American Revolution and remained there until his death in 1827.
Charles was a true man of the enlightenment. Although beginning his career as a saddle maker, Charles went on to become one of the most prominent American portrait painters – painting all the famous faces of the day (over 1000!), including over 60 images of George Washington. Many of these portraits can be viewed en mass at the Second National Bank Portrait Gallery (Putting Faces to the Revolution: The Portrait Gallery at Independence Park).
He trained with John Singleton Copley, and later spent two years in London with Benjamin West perfecting his skills. When the war broke out, he joined the Pennsylvania Militia, rising to the rank of captain. He painted several battle scenes, including his most famous, “Washington after the Battle of Princeton” (which Peale fought in), a copy of which sold in 2005 for $21.3 million – setting a record for the highest price paid for an American portrait. The original is housed at PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: American Art & Victorian Splendor). Peale made several copies, including two at the Princeton Art Museum (Princeton University’s Amazing (and free!) Art Museum). One is an exact copy of the original, the other is a slightly different rendition called “Washington at the Battle of Princeton.”
After the war, Peale focused his attention on the Enlightenment ideal of education for all classes, opening a museum (the first in the US) – in his home, then later moving to the second floor of Independence Hall. He painted several views of his museum, including a large one housed at PAFA, (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: American Art & Victorian Splendor) America’s first art school, where Peale was a founding member and teacher, and a smaller one at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The museum was not simply a gallery of famous American faces, but housed a collection that included fossils (a mastodon he helped excavate – which eventually ended up in a German museum and barely escaped destruction by a WWII bomb that destroyed the museum),
live and taxidermied animals, and specimens from Lewis & Clarke’s expedition (a gift from Thomas Jefferson), all arranged using a Linnaean system of classification – with simple creatures on the bottom and more complex ones above. One of the most unique pieces was his trompe l’oeil painting of his sons, which was apparently so realistic with its actual wooden doorframe and step, that George Washington tipped his hat and greeted the boys.
Another personal, family portrait displayed, “Rachel Weeping,” shows the death of one of Peale’s children. The painting was displayed behind a curtain, with the warning “Before you draw this curtain consider if you will affect a mother or father who has lost a child.”
These paintings, along with a ticket to the museum are housed in the PMA.
They also have works by Peale’s slave, Moses Williams (whom Peale manumitted). Moses was hired to use a phisiognitrace to create silhouettes that could be purchased by museum visitors (amazingly intricate, but not often on display).
The back room of the Portrait Gallery is set up to mimic Peale’s museum, and contains a bald eagle that was originally a Peale family pet and later a museum exhibit.
After Peale’s death, his sons moved the museum to Baltimore, where it eventually closed and the items sold, many going to PT Barnum (later burned in a fire) and several ending up in Harvard at the Peabody Museum (including the only documented Native American pieces collected by Lewis and Clark). This bear claw necklace was rediscovered in 2004 after being lost/misplaced in the 1940’s.
In addition to his painting, museum, military service, fossil excavations, etc., Charles was also an inventor. This model (created with son Raphaelle) won the American Philosophical Society’s prize for fireplace improvements in the late 1790’s.
Charles was a family man and had 18 children with his 3 wives. He passed along his artistic talent, founding America’s first dynasty of American painters (the last Peale family painter, Charles’s grand daughter Mary Jane, died in 1902). He taught his brother James and later several of his children (whom he named for famous artists and scientists, including Titian, Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens, Angelica Kauffman, Charles Linnaeus, Benjamin Franklin). Training also included females, with two of his nieces becoming well known painters.
Paintings by James, Rembrandt, and several other Peale family members can be found in the collections around the city, including these from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The home where Charles lived from 1818-1826 is still standing, and is now an alumni building for La Salle University. 2100 Clarkson Avenue. Charles Willson Peale died in 1827 and is buried St. Peter’s cemetery (The Colonial (Georgian) Churches of Philadelphia):