James Peale
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 Peale’s 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 (1709–1750)—the schoolmaster at Kent County School, Chestertown, Maryland—and Margaret Triggs Peale (1709–1791). 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 brother’s painting studio, about 1769, when Charles returned to Annapolis after two years’ training in London under Benjamin West. James applied his carpentry skills in Charles’s studio, making frames for his brother’s 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 James’s copies at about this time include one after West’s copy of Titian’s Venus and another after his brother’s copy of David Martin’s Benjamin Franklin.6

James continued working in his brother’s Annapolis studio until January 14, 1776, when he accepted a commission as an ensign in William Smallwood’s 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 brother’s 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 (1723–1792) and his American-born successor, Benjamin West. The subjects of JamesPeale’s 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 Parker’s 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.

Figure 1. James Peale, The Ambush of Captain Allan McLane, begun about 1803, oil on canvas, 28 1/8 x 36 1/8 in. (71.4 x 91.8 cm), Utah Museum of Fine Arts, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, purchased with funds from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, the Marriner S. Eccles Foundation, and the Friends of the Museum UMFA 1987.056.001.

Peale’s most successful history painting, begun in 1803, was commissioned by its heroic subject: The Ambush of Captain Allan McLane shows McLane fending off an attack by two British dragoons (fig. 1). Peale prepared a number of preliminary sketches (American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia) for the painting and worked from the description of the episode preserved in the soldier’s own journal.12 While the action of McLane fighting with the soldier nearest to the viewer is convincing, the other figure appears too static to impart drama. It would remain for the next generation of the Peale family—specifically, James’s nephew Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860)—to realize the possibilities of history painting successfully.

James Peale lived with his older brother in Philadelphia until 1782, when he married Mary Claypoole (1753–1829), sister of the artist James Claypoole, Jr. (about 1743–1800).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 Charles’s 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

Figure 2. James Peale, Thomas Cumpston, 1797, watercolor on ivory, 2 15/16 x 2 5/16 in. (7.5 x 5.8 cm), Worcester Art Museum, Alexander and Caroline DeWitt Fund, 1983.2.

Increasingly, however, James Peale established himself independently as a talented painter of portrait miniatures, the mainstay of his career and reputation. Early in his training, he showed a facility for this demanding format, as demonstrated by his delicate portrait of his sister-in-law, Rachel Brewer Peale (Mrs. Charles Willson Peale) (about 1769, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In 1786 the brothers agreed to divide their portrait business, with James painting miniatures and Charles, oil portraits. Each continued producing likenesses of both types, although their efforts were now specialized. An example of James’s mature style is Thomas Cumpston (fig. 2). This miniature demonstrates the larger scale that Peale adopted in the 1790s as well as his working method in the middle of his career: long diagonal strokes in the background, smaller linear strokes in the figure, and scratched-away paint to adjust his drawing.17 This work is signed and dated at the bottom-left in Peale’s characteristic manner: "I P/1797." He painted at least two self-portraits in miniature, one in 1788 (private collection) and the other in 1810–15 (R. W. Norton Art Gallery, Shreveport, Louisiana).18 Charles Willson Peale cemented his brother’s identity as a miniaturist by portraying James at midcareer (about 1795, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts) in the act of painting Rachel Brewer. He depicted him again, late in life, admiring his work in miniature by lamplight (1822, Detroit Institute of Arts). James Peale went on creating miniatures until about 1820, when failing eyesight prevented him from painting in such fine detail.

Figure 3. James Peale, The Artist and His Family, 1795, 31 1/4 x 32 3/4 in. (79.4 x 83.2 cm), Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Gift of John Frederick Lewis, 1922.1.1.

He also was a skilled painter of oil portraits on canvas, of which he apparently made fewer than seventy. The Artist and His Family (fig. 3) combines Peale’s abilities in portraiture with his interest in landscape and command of the so-called conversation piece. The relatively small canvas includes full-length portraits of himself, his wife, and their five children. The conversation piece is a type of informal portrait that was popular in London in the mid-eighteenth century. James’s knowledge of it surely reflects his brother’s training and influence on him. James Peale developed a neoclassical portrait style, evident in such paintings as Madame Dubocq and Her Children (1807, J. B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville), and he painted individual and group portraits until the end of his life.

The precisely delineated setting in this family portrait hints at the artist’s 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 brother’s 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 water’s edge, while a mill in the distance evokes the burgeoning of American industry and prosperity.

Figure 4. James Peale, Pleasure Party by a Mill, about 1790, oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 40 1/8 in. (66.7 x 101.9 cm), Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Bayou Bend Collection, Gift of Miss Ima Hogg, B.62.16.

Similar republican celebrations of the improvement of the land can be found in American illustrated magazines of the 1780s and 1790s and in such New England canvases as Ralph Earl’s Looking East from Denny Hill. Toward the end of his life, James Peale explored the romantic sublime in landscape compositions that included such conventional elements as thunderstorms, wind-battered and uprooted trees, and grand mountains.21

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 reference—such as flowers, books, and papers—to enhance their portraits. For example, in The Peale Family (1771–73 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 (1774–1825) 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 Peale’s 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 James’s still-life paintings remained important teaching tools in the family, and his children and nephews copied them long after his death.25

Figure 5. Anna Claypoole Peale, Jacob Randolph, M.D., 1817, watercolor on ivory, 2 7/8 x 2 in. (7.2 x 5 cm), Worcester Art Museum, Eliza S. Paine Fund, 1991.31.

Charles Willson Peale prided himself on educating his sons and daughters alike, but it was James who produced some of the first professional women artists in America. Perhaps because his only son, James, Jr. (1789–1876), showed relatively little interest in painting, James, Sr., paid greater attention to his daughters’ artistic education. Of his six children who survived to maturity, three became accomplished painters.26 Anna Claypoole Peale (1798–1871) was a miniaturist (fig. 5) and a still-life painter. Margaretta Peale (1795–1882) painted trompe l’oeil subjects after her cousin Raphaelle and tabletop fruit still lifes that show her father’s influence; around 1828 Margaretta also began painting oil portraits. Like her father and sister Margaretta, Sarah Miriam Peale (1800–1885) also became a portraitist and still-life painter. Her fruit paintings especially resemble her father’s in their arrangements on a shelf or table placed low in the picture and in their use of brightly lit subjects against dark backgrounds. Given James Peale’s versatility and his contribution to the next generation of Peale family artists, he deserves greater scholarly attention than he has so far received.

1. Still life count in Elam 1967, 118; all others in Simmons 1996, 209, 212, 214.

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 Peale’s military service, see Simmons 1996, 205.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., 215.

10. Sellers 1969a, 387.

11. Simmons 1996, 209–13.

12. Ibid., 212–13. 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., 431–33; Miller 1996b, 22.

15. Miller 1983, 637.

16. Ibid., 511 n 92.

17. Strickler 1989, 25 and 98–9.

18. Elam 1967, 73–74; Miller 1983, 523.

19. Charles Willson Peale diary, June 19 and 22, 1788, in Miller 1983, 502, 504.

20. Nygren 1986, 73–74, 280–81; Simmons 1996, 207–9.

21. Miller 1996b, 80.

22. Sellers 1969a, 272; Simmons 1996, 217.

23. Nemerov 2001.

24. Simmons 1996, 217–19.

25. Schweizer 1996, 172, 176, 185.

26. For James Peale’s children, see Hirshorn 1996.