Born Chestertown, Maryland, 1749. Died Philadelphia, May 24, 1831.
Best known as a portrait miniaturist and fruit still-life painter, James Peale also made oil portraits, history paintings, and landscapes. The total number of landscape paintings he created remains undetermined, but he executed more than two hundred watercolor miniatures on ivory, perhaps one hundred still-life paintings, fewer than seventy oil portraits, and at least eight history paintings.1 Peales career, which began in Annapolis, Maryland, was interrupted by three years of military service during the American Revolution. He worked in Philadelphia from 1779 until his death and developed a predominantly neoclassical approach to painting, although his late landscapes hint at an interest in romanticism.
James Peale was the son of Charles Peale (17091750)the schoolmaster at Kent County School, Chestertown, Marylandand Margaret Triggs Peale (17091791). Charles Peale died when James was an infant, and the family moved to Annapolis, where James was trained by his older brother Charles Willson Peale, first to be a saddle maker and then a painter.2 Charles had completed his apprenticeship in saddlery in 1762, just as James was reaching the age when a boy might enter his training in a trade. Neither brother remained in the saddle-making business. James apprenticed to a cabinetmaker in Charlestown, Maryland, in 1765.3
James next entered his brothers painting studio, about 1769, when Charles returned to Annapolis after two years training in London under Benjamin West. James applied his carpentry skills in Charless studio, making frames for his brothers paintings and generally helping him establish his artistic workplace.4 Charles also gave his brother lessons in drawing and painting, and wrote to Benjamin West in 1771 that James "coppys very well, and has painted a little from the life."5 Jamess copies at about this time include one after Wests copy of Titians Venus and another after his brothers copy of David Martins Benjamin Franklin.6
James continued working in his brothers Annapolis studio until January 14, 1776, when he accepted a commission as an ensign in William Smallwoods regiment of the Maryland Line.7 Within three months, he was promoted to captain. During the next three years, he fought in the battles of Long Island, White Plains, Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown, Princeton, and Monmouth. Even though he received a personal letter from George Washington asking him to remain in service, in June 1779, James Peale resigned his commission and moved to Philadelphia. He rejoined his brother Charles, who had moved there with his wife and family, and once again lived and worked in his brothers studio.8 James later became a member of the Society of Cincinnati, which was formed after the Revolution to honor the officers of that war.9 His exemplary military service would lead to portrait commissions and serve as the basis of his history paintings. It also earned him a pension late in his life, when his health began to fail.10
Late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century American artists were partial to history subjects, even though there was little market for such paintings in this country. Their interpretations of morally uplifting scenes from history, literature, and the Bible, demonstrated their knowledge of European painting theory and especially the examples of the Royal Academy president Sir Joshua Reynolds (17231792) and his American-born successor, Benjamin West. The subjects of JamesPeales few history paintings were drawn from the annals of the American Revolution.11 The Generals at Yorktown (n.d., Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia), for example, shows Washington and his generals gathered on the Virginia shore where the British were decisively beaten and Lord Cornwallis was forced to surrender. Another of his history paintings, Sir Peter Parkers Attack against Fort Moultrie (n.d., Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) depicts the failed British naval attack on Charleston in 1776 from the vantage point of the sea.
James Peale lived with his older brother in Philadelphia until 1782, when he married Mary Claypoole (17531829), sister of the artist James Claypoole, Jr. (about 17431800).13 Even after he established his own household, James continued to assist his older brother. With his enterprising sibling, he helpedcreate the transparent moving pictures that Charles displayed for an admission fee in his painting room in 1785.14 James also continued to make frames for Charless oil paintings.15 And, working together, the two brothers made floats for the Federal Procession, the grand parade held in Philadelphia in 1788 to commemorate the newly drafted United States Constitution.16
The precisely delineated setting in this family portrait hints at the artists broader interest in landscape painting. Before the 1820s, landscape was relatively rare as a subject in American painting, except in the overmantels made by decorative painters or as a background for outdoor portraits. But James was painting them by 1788, when Charles arranged to sell his own and his brothers work by raffle.19 Pleasure Party by a Mill (fig. 4) demonstrates his mastery of the picturesque mode of landscape in which nature and culture are appealingly blended.20 A well-dressedgroup in the right foreground rests near flowers and swans at the waters edge, while a mill in the distance evokes the burgeoning of American industry and prosperity.
James Peale was among the first American painters to focus on the genre of still life, turning to this form especially after he had to give up miniatures. Eighteenth-century American artists learned still life in order to include objects of beauty or biographical referencesuch as flowers, books, and papersto enhance their portraits. For example, in The Peale Family (177173 and 1809, New-York Historical Society), Charles Willson Peale included a fruit still life that refers to the fecundity of the women seated around the table; the presence of fruit peels among the objects was a pun on the family name, a joke that various Peales would repeat in subsequent still-life paintings. In 1795 James Peale exhibited a still life of fruit along with nine miniatures and his family portrait at the Columbianum, a short-lived art academy and gallery in Philadelphia.22 His nephew Raphaelle Peale (17741825) would concentrate on still-life painting in the 1810s, developing a romantic approach to the subject that emphasized an emotional response to exotic objects and sensually depicted fruit, wine, nuts, cakes, fish, and meat.23
By contrast, James Peales still lifes exemplify a neoclassical order and feeling of abundance. Works such as Still Life typify his preference for fruit themes, strong light on the principal subject, a dark background, and a controlled handling of paint. Late in his life, he switched from painting on the smooth, hard surfaces of panel to the textured weave of canvas. His brushwork also loosened at this time, although his subjects and compositions remained relatively constant.24 Jamess still-life paintings remained important teaching tools in the family, and his children and nephews copied them long after his death.25
2. Miller 1983, xlv.
3. Simmons 1996, 203.
4. Miller 1996b, 104.
5. Charles Willson Peale to Benjamin West, April 20, 1771, in Miller 1983, 95.
6. Miller 1983, 124.
7. For Peales military service, see Simmons 1996, 205.
9. Ibid., 215.
10. Sellers 1969a, 387.
11. Simmons 1996, 20913.
12. Ibid., 21213. In addition to the version of The Ambush of Captain Allan McLane illustrated here, James Peale painted a second version that is in a private collection.
13. Ibid., 205.
14. Ibid., 43133; Miller 1996b, 22.
15. Miller 1983, 637.
16. Ibid., 511 n 92.
17. Strickler 1989, 25 and 989.
18. Elam 1967, 7374; Miller 1983, 523.
19. Charles Willson Peale diary, June 19 and 22, 1788, in Miller 1983, 502, 504.
20. Nygren 1986, 7374, 28081; Simmons 1996, 2079.
21. Miller 1996b, 80.
22. Sellers 1969a, 272; Simmons 1996, 217.
23. Nemerov 2001.
24. Simmons 1996, 21719.
25. Schweizer 1996, 172, 176, 185.
26. For James Peales children, see Hirshorn 1996.