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Charles Willson Peale,
America's First Official State Portrait,
And the Institution of the Presidency

by Steven Carr
June 2015

Long before there was a U.S. President, or even a Constitution, the institution of the Presidency was already serving the country. The 1779 painting, “George Washington at Princeton” (Figure 1), by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) is considered to be America's first official state portrait, and offers a glimpse of that early institutional role of the nation's leadership. Later, when the Constitution crafted the office of the President, Washington (1732-1799) would be viewed almost universally as the ideal, battle-tested leader to fill that position, but in this portrait, Washington is still off fighting the war, and not home running the country.

Figure 1
“George Washington at Princeton” (1779) is considered America's first official state portrait, and shows the blue sash of “Commander-in-Chief.”

Peale's painting shows a robust Washington with his blue sash of Commander-in-Chief, just after he had defeated the most powerful empire in the world for the second time in one week. After the victory at Princeton (January 3, 1777), distractions began to appear on the political landscape, but Washington and his circle kept the focus on the hard battles that lay ahead. This goes beyond personal discipline, or even military tactics, and shows us true statecraft. Most of Peale's life was dedicated to uplifting future generations of Americans so that they would be qualified to continue this experiment in self-government.

Although this portrait was commissioned to be displayed at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the civic core of the nation at the time, it also addressed an international audience. Peale made 17 copies to be used for diplomatic purposes (along with a bit of wartime propaganda), which were sent mainly to France and Spain to build international support for the Patriot cause. The portrait was an immediate success, and Peale was swamped with these additional commissions even before he had completed the original.

The Image of Washington

Some art critics have complained that Peale was too honest in his rendering of the somewhat awkward figure of George Washington. To paraphrase one, Peale was not the best of American painters, but he was the most American of painters. (Of all the full-length portraits of Washington only that done by Gilbert Stuart shows a perfectly proportioned Washington, but Stuart hired models to stand in for the busy President).

Peale himself participated in the Battle of Princeton, and every detail of his portrait was based on his personal observation. Peale shows us the man he knew. He rejected aristocratic flattery so common in this period, but especially here, he wanted to challenge the European audience with the new American identity. These might be “the times that try men's souls,” but the American character was calm and steady. Washington had just achieved a critical victory, and is seen savoring the moment, but he is not lost in celebration--he remains on the battlefield, vigilant, with his hand on the cannon. His horse is immediately behind him, showing us that he is determined to pursue the enemy until final victory. As if it were a battle trophy, we see on the ground to the left the the British flag that just moments earlier was flying over Nassau Hall in the distance. There are two Hessian flags on the ground on the right (one representing the recent victory at Trenton, and the other captured at Princeton). In the middle ground, long lines of British prisoners are being marched off of the battlefield.

This is considered the world's most casual official state portrait, but Washington was not posing for the artist; this confident and relaxed stance was how he often stood. Peale always liked as much specificity as possible in his paintings--especially in time and location--and wanted Europe to know that history was made on this day, at this field in Princeton, New Jersey, by this big-boned, lanky, 6'2'' Virginia farmer.

Peale had studied art in London under the American painter, Benjamin West; he used Leonardo da Vinci's Treatise on Painting, as his guide, and the works of Raphael as his model. He founded America's first art academy and filled the classrooms with plaster copies of ancient Greek statues and mostly Dutch and Flemish paintings. Peale, like many prominent American artists of the period, was heavily influenced by science (nobody would ever say that about their prominent British rivals, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds or Thomas Gainsborough). Yet, personally, Peale was never satisfied with his technical skills, and was his own worst critic. But today, many of these 18 Princeton paintings by Peale are on public display across the United States, and each one is treated as a national treasure.

Peale was a scientist, artist, and inventor, as well as a committed American patriot. He joined the “Sons of Liberty” in their fight against the royalist Court Party in 1764, during the hotly contested election of that year in Annapolis, Maryland. He arrived in Massachusetts just as the revolt over the Stamp Act erupted in 1765, where he used his artistic talents to make banners and campaign signs. In 1767, he was in London when the British Parliament passed the Townshend Acts which taxed many imports into the colonies (British law made some of these goods illegal to produce in America so they had to be imported). Peale opposed many features of this legislation, but he could never forgive Britain for the section which annulled the state charter of New York, and vowed that he would never remove his hat when King George III traveled through the streets of London.

In 1776, he moved to Philadelphia just in time to witness the public reading of the Declaration of Independence on the steps of the Pennsylvania State House (today known as Independence Hall), where he enlisted as a soldier the very next day. Within two months, he was promoted to Lieutenant in the Philadelphia Militia.

At the Battle of Trenton, Peale was engaged in only minor skirmishes, however, a week later, at the Battle of Princeton, he would be in the thick of the fighting. At Princeton, the British forces saw an opportunity to break the American line with a bayonet charge, seeing that the Continentals had no bayonets to defend themselves. The American line began to falter and Peale's units were called in to plug the hole--with George Washington personally riding up in front of the American line to steady his troops. The British launched a second bayonet charge, but very soon the Americans, despite their lack of equipment, out-maneuvered and out-performed their more experienced enemy--the first time on an open battlefield.

Sometimes known as America's resident history painter, Peale painted the portraits of 686 Patriot leaders of the period--military, political, religious, and business. He gave a face to the American Revolution, and in some cases, the only images ever produced of these leaders were done by Peale. The first ever portrait of George Washington was done by Peale in 1772 at the request of Martha Washington; it would be the centerpiece in the parlor in their Mt. Vernon home for 27 years. George requested a miniature of Martha from Peale, which he wore as a pendant around his neck until his final hours. Washington sat for Peale seven times, and Peale would make 60 copies from these images. One of these sittings was briefly interrupted in 1777 when a report arrived for Washington of the news of the victory at the Battle of Saratoga.  At another sitting in 1795 Washington had his portrait done by four members of the Peale family (Charles, two sons, and a brother) at the same time, causing the painter, Gilbert Stuart to jokingly warn Martha Washington that her husband was being, "Pealed all around."  

During the war, Peale served under Washington, but their relationship was never military in nature. Before Peale would do a portrait, he first wanted to meet the spouse, the children, the parents, and even friends and neighbors. Often Peale would eat with the family and spend at least one night in their home. As with all of his other sitters, his was a lifelong personal friendship with the Washingtons, and Peale's tone in these portraits seem to invite the viewer to, “Come and meet my friend.” Traditional British portraits often focused on social status and breeding, but Peale, while acknowledging his greatness, wanted Washington to be seen as an equal--with the message that we viewers could become great heroes too. Conventional military portraiture of the period would feature great pomp and drama, but Peale's focus is on accomplishments and character. This is the image of republican virtue, as opposed to contemporary renderings of the power-hungry Napoleon, operating above the law. Washington was becoming famous around the world, yet Peale shows us that he was as approachable as one's own brother.

Later generations of American artists would routinely change this image of Washington. They would never portray Washington with the haughtiness of an European aristocrat, but, especially after his death, Washington was often given a more romanticized or even deified image--sometimes with god-like powers. (An extreme example of this may be the controversial 1840 Zeus-like, semi-nude statue of a seated Washington, by the American sculptor Horatio Greenough, which was wisely removed within two years from the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.).

Peale at Valley Forge

During the unusually harsh winter of 1776-1777, Lt. Charles Willson Peale had 81 soldiers of the Philadelphia Militia under his command. These were desperate months for the American cause, and Peale's only wartime pleasures were caring for his men, and painting portraits of all of the officers at Valley Forge--Peale always carried his paint box with him. Other units were losing men in record numbers from disease, hunger, exposure to the elements, and even desertion, but Peale kept his troops healthy and strong. He always had surplus food (the commissary department would routinely follow Peale's whereabouts knowing that he would have food to spare). After marching 26 miles through the night to Princeton, and then fighting the British the next day, the exhausted troops still had a good late night meal thanks to Peale personally staying-up late to do the cooking. His troops always had warm clothing--Peale even used his skills in leather working, learned at age 12 when he worked as a saddler apprentice, to make moccasins for his men. He secured enough wood to make a warm fire for them and build a roof over their heads. Peale not only met individually with each soldier, but would go with them to visit their families. Peale always brought three sheets of paper during these family visits--one to write the concerns of the soldier, another to write the needs of each family, and the third were the reenlistment papers, and Peale had one of the highest rates of retention.

The soldiers in the Continental Army often joked that the local militia were the first to run away from a battle. However, Peale always defended them, saying that they usually had a deeper political understanding of the war. He said that they were not professional soldiers seeking fame and fortune, but were usually local farmers and tradesmen, and what they lacked in military training, they made-up in dedication to the cause. The citizen soldier was there to defend an ideal. When a town was under threat of attack, the local militia was usually the first line of defense, and during domestic disputes after the war, the local militias were the most trusted by all sides to not only maintain peace, but also to allow all legitimate voices to be heard, and not impose an outside solution. Peale said that it might be possible to find better soldiers, but it would be difficult to find better citizens.

Peale, the Scientist

Peale had a universal mind and a contagious enthusiasm that left a lasting impact on everyone who came in contact with him. As his son later said, Peale would attempt new things that others around him were unable to do, but found themselves following his example. This enthusiasm created a family dynasty of painters and scientists that continued for generations. (While an art student in London, Peale was irritated by the common belief that one's artistic abilities were determined by his or her breeding, and not from any acquired skill or talent, so when he returned to America he successfully proved this theory wrong by teaching his two brothers to paint). He believed that man's role was to make nature more harmonious, and that would only be possible in a society built on a strong foundation of art and science. His child-like curiosity inspired his interest in many fields, and in his later years, he viewed the increasingly narrow specialization and rigid professionalism of separate, distinct fields as lacking unity and harmony and limiting creative approaches to problem-solving.

Figure 2

Benjamin Franklin (1789). In order to insult Franklin, King George III tried to change Franklin's design of the lightning rod with a pointed tip to one with a round knob on top, which Franklin considered dangerous. Peale supported Franklin's original design and depicts him here holding the correct, pointed version.
  Figure 3
“Alexander von Humboldt” (1804). Peale took Humboldt on a 3 week tour of Washington, DC.

He had many friends, but his strongest personal bonds usually involved his work in science. He became an officer in Benjamin Franklin's (Figure 2) American Philosophical Society and perhaps its most active member. During the war, he worked with the Philadelphia astronomer David Rittenhouse to make telescopic sights for rifles. As George Washington sat for his several portraits, their discussion was almost always on improvements in farm equipment and agricultural techniques. (Peale, though he spent most of his life in urban centers, worked with crop rotation, fertilizers, was one of the first people in the world to try contour farming, and built an early harrow that would replace the labor-intensive hoeing.) Peale corresponded with Robert Fulton about his idea of building a mechanical washing machine; he worked with the Scottish-American educator, Alexander Wilson using a crossbow to launch projectiles in order to develop the best wing design for flight. He exchanged 50 letters with Thomas Jefferson on perfecting a machine that would make duplicate letters.

In 1804, the visiting Alexander von Humboldt (Figure 3) accompanied Peale on his trip from Philadelphia to the White House to show President Jefferson his completed duplicating “polygraph machine.” (During their three week stay Peale and Humboldt were the dinner guests of much of official Washington, and consistently, Humboldt was the life of the party, with stories of his travels and shocking tales of Europe's nobility). The first U.S. patent for a bridge design went to Peale, who used elements from the Renaissance architect, Philibert Delorme (1510-1570). A second U.S. patent was granted to him for an improved fireplace design. He designed a windmill with spring-loaded sails that could better withstand violent storms, and wanted it to be his gift to the world, but someone else used his design to obtain a patent and seek royalties. In his long life, Peale made porcelain false teeth, ground lenses for eyeglasses, and worked with Dr. Caspar Wistar at the medical school at the University of Pennsylvania.

America's First Scientific Expedition

Peale led America's first organized scientific expedition on July 29, 1801, to excavate giant bones from the extinct mastodon in Upstate New York. (Later his expedition would be used as a model for the Lewis & Clark Expedition--and to prepare for it, President Jefferson would first send Meriwether Lewis to Philadelphia to confer with Peale). Peale's expedition traveled north on the Hudson River, escorted by Capt. George Fleming, Commander of the West Point Military Academy, to a swampy area of Ulster County, New York. It was financed with $500 from Franklin's American Philosophical Society, and aided with tents from the U.S. Army, and a giant water pump from the U.S. Navy to drain the swamp.

Peale had earlier seen a local farmer's collection of very large bones and now returned to dig at the site of the discoveries. He recovered bones from three mastodons, two of which were complete enough to reconstruct and mount for display--the first time anywhere in the world. His work disproved several popular beliefs of Europe's scientific community, such as the idea that the New World was so primitive that animal species would actually degenerate to lower levels.

Figure 4
“The Exhumation of the Mastodon” (1806-1808) depicts America's first scientific expedition and captured the imagination of the American public.

He painted “The Exhumation of the Mastodon” (1806-08) (Figure 4) to answer the many questions from the public about the bones and the recovery process. He captures the moment of discovery of one of the large bones, and this was his first attempt at history painting. Peale wanted to share credit with 20 members of his family seen in the lower right corner of the painting--including a few who were deceased. (Peale often played with multi-generational images to show the development of a great idea over time, or even a growing family, and some argue that this canvas gave so much detailed attention to his family members that this history painting could instead be considered a family portrait). Regardless, it is clear that Peale took great pride in the idea that his family would play a prominent role in American science for generations to come. Peale's self-portrait in the painting (seen holding the large drawing) is modeled after the Classical Apollo Belvedere statue, and many of the workers in the pit are modeled after the Laocoön group. Starting in 1801, newspapers were full of accounts of Peale's efforts in paleontology which captured the imagination of the American public. Jefferson filled the East Room of the White House with these bones for examination, and by the time of the 1806 return of Lewis & Clark from their expedition they found a nation already engaged in scientific exploration.

Peale's Museum

Figure 5
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Alexander Hamilton (c.1800). At age 26 Hamilton began to shape the federal government and a nationalist economic plan.

Europe had a long tradition of museums, or Wunderkammern, which was a room or cabinet filled with curiosities, but their goal differed from that of Peale's museum. The Wunderkammer's mission was not to advance science, educate Europe's serfs and peasants, or even activate the scientific community. To the contrary, the Wunderkammer was often used to intimidate visiting rival nobility with the extent of the reach of their empire. The British Museum was opened in 1759, but it was not for the general public. To enter one had to fill out applications and then return in 2 or 3 weeks for approval, a procedure designed to weed out the unwashed masses.

Peale's idea of a museum may also be different than that of many of today's museum curators. He wanted a large campus, located in a large city, with a national scientific research institute, a national university, and a national museum--operating as a single unit to advance the nation. To promote this national science institute, Peale pulled together a committee of Alexander Hamilton (Figure 5), Robert Morris, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, David Rittenhouse, and many more. Peale was given the use of the top floor of Independence Hall and the fenced-in square block behind it for his museum. In Peale's self-portrait, “The Artist in His Museum” (Figure 6), considered by some to be his masterpiece, we are invited inside to consider the world in a more rational way. We see the Long Room of Independence Hall where the 81-year-old painter is still experimenting--this time with a light source that comes from behind his head.

Figure 6

“The Artist in His Museum” (1822) invites us into his rational world of his museum on the second floor of Independence Hall.

Peale would accumulate over 100,000 artifacts--some contributed from trade missions to China, American diplomats in India, and explorers returning from Hawaii and the Fiji Islands. It became the unofficial repository for all specimens from the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the 1820 Stephen Long Expedition (where the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers led a team of scientists, including Peale's son, Titian Peale, to chart and explore the boundary between the U.S. and Spanish territory), Zebulon Pike's expedition to the Colorado Rockies, and many more. (Peale refused to display all of the items since he did not want to catalog the universe, but rather show the possibilities of a more ideal, intelligible world--and when he did add an item, he would have to change the entire museum to reflect its relation to the rest of the universe).

Most people called it the Peale Museum, but Peale wanted it to be a national institution and not associated with any single person. Peale offered to give it all over to the federal government, but President Jefferson refused. Jefferson, a strict constructionist, could not find the word “museum” in the Constitution so he considered it beyond his authority.

Peale vs. Jefferson

It may be useful here to compare Jefferson with Peale on the question of public education. For Jefferson, his greatest personal achievement was not becoming President or working with the Founding Fathers, but rather, being the architect of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. However, his “academical village” was not located in an urban center for maximum national influence, nor even inside the rural outpost of Charlottesville. Jefferson's campus was outside the town, and he configured the connected buildings in the shape of a large “C” with its back towards the town (his original design did not even have a doorway facing the town)--so that even this small town would not be invited to benefit from any advances. Jefferson did not design this university to improve society, but to maintain a system of isolated pockets of gentlemen farmers surrounded by a continent of backwardness. Education could be used for personal entertainment, but not as a driver for the nation. Jefferson's university would be offered only to a small group of white males who came from privileged backgrounds--and Jefferson specified that he preferred that those students come from the South or the West, but not from the North.

Peale's museum, on the other hand, would radiate the latest scientific advances to all of society. To entice the public, Peale offered lectures from his “faculty” of scientists, usually from the American Philosophical Society next door, and musical concerts. (Peale kept an organ in his museum because he thought that the best way to educate the public was to unite art and science to show the harmony of the universe). Peale even made free souvenir silhouettes for the children. He installed gas lighting (a novelty of the period which became an attraction in itself), and extended his hours of operation so that those who had to work all day could come in the evening. Peale actively worked for the broadest possible audience for his museum--whites, blacks, male, female, rich, poor, even Native Americans. (Two hostile Indian chiefs accidentally crossed paths inside his museum, but agreed that Peale showed them that we all have a human bond, and agreed never to fight each other again--which prompted the War Department to request the use of one of Peale's rooms to invite leaders from 64 tribes to meet at the museum). This more closely reflected his inclusive political outlook, and in the end, he considered his science museum to be a civic institution. He thought that, ultimately, in a democracy, the best defense against mob rule was to have a highly educated, thinking, and imaginative population.

Every act, whether political, artistic, or scientific, reflected Peale's love of country and his fellow citizens. Upon his death, the streets were lined for the funeral procession with a cross-section of the entire country. There were Quaker pacifists standing next to war veterans, artists, and scientists, the richest and poorest, society's most powerful next to the most marginalized. Rarely in history has a single individual inspired admiration from such a diverse grouping. The American Philosophical Society voted not to attend as individuals, but as an institution.

Today, in our country, which is so divided between red states and blue states, or political gridlock on Capitol Hill, we would be well-advised to study this man who's greatest goal in life was to create “a world where reason and benevolence were law.”