Charles Willson Peale (April 15, 1741 – February 22, 1827) was an American painter, soldier and naturalist.
Peale was born in Chester, Queen Anne's County, Maryland, the son of Charles Peale and his wife Margaret. In 1749 his brother James Peale (1749-1831) was born. Charles became an apprentice to a saddle maker when he was thirteen years old. Upon reaching maturity, he opened his own saddle shop; however, when his Loyalist creditors discovered he had joined the Sons of Liberty, they conspired to bankrupt his business.
Career as painter
Finding that he had a talent for painting, especially portraitures, Peale studied for a time under John Hesselius and John Singleton Copley. Eventually friends raised enough money for him to travel to England to take instruction from Benjamin West. Peale studied with West for two years beginning in 1767, afterward returning to America and settling in Annapolis, Maryland. There, he taught painting to his younger brother, James Peale, who in time also became a noted artist.
Peale's enthusiasm for the nascent national government brought him to the capital, Philadelphia, in 1776, where he painted portraits of American notables and visitors from overseas. His estate, which is on the campus of La Salle University in Philadelphia, can still be visited. He also raised troops for the War of Independence and eventually gained the rank of captain in the Pennsylvania militia by 1777, having participated in several battles. While in the field, he continued to paint, doing miniature portraits of various officers in the Continental Army. He produced enlarged versions of these in later years. He served in the Pennsylvania state assembly in 1779-1780, after which he returned to painting full-time.
Peale painted in the trompe l'oeil style, and was quite prolific as an artist. While he did portraits of scores of historic figures (such as John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton), he is probably best known for his portraits of George Washington. The first time Washington ever sat for a portrait was with Peale in 1772, and there would be six other sittings; using these seven as models, Peale produced altogether close to 60 portraits of Washington. In January 2005, a full length portrait of "Washington at Princeton" from 1779 sold for $21.3 million dollars - setting a record for the highest price paid for an American portrait.
He also had a great interest in natural history, and organized the first U.S. scientific expedition in 1801. These two major interests combined in his founding of what became the Philadelphia Museum, and was later renamed the Peale Museum. This museum was stocked with artwork supplied by Peale, and artifacts of natural history, such as a mastodon skeleton found on the first expedition. After his death, the museum was sold to, and split up by, showmen P. T. Barnum and Moses Kimball.