Home / Painting / The Art of Charles Willson Peale: One of America’s Most Beloved Portrait Artists

The Art of Charles Willson Peale: One of America’s Most Beloved Portrait Artists

If a person desires to become an artist, yet they have seemingly no artistic ability whatsoever, is there any hope for them, or are they destined to never achieve their goal?

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), one of the most famous artists in American history, would argue that such a person is not at all without hope, were he still alive today.

Peale, a revolutionary patriarch with seventeen children and a gift for portrait painting, believed that absolutely anyone could learn to draw.

He himself is responsible for some of the most well-known portraits of his time – portraits of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson, among countless others (many of which you’d probably recognize if you saw them).

An Artistic Polymath and Revolutionary

Prior to the revolution, Charles Willson Peale had studied for two years in England with Benjamin West, an American-born painter who had since moved to London.

In addition to painting, Peale had many other talents, such as carpentry (he wrote a very well-received article entitled “An Essay on Building Wooden Bridges”), optometry, shoemaking (or cobbling, as it was then called) and optometry.

As a teenager, Peale even owned his own saddle-making shop for a time, though his business was forced into bankruptcy when some Loyalists (those during the time leading up to the revolution who remained loyal to the British crown) discovered that he was a member of the Sons of Liberty, a Patriotic organization.

The Proof of His Statement

Throughout his life, Charles Willson Peale maintained the belief that absolutely anyone could be taught to draw.
While some people (the author of this article included) may attempt to use their own abilities (or lack thereof) as proof to the contrary, Peale’s own family does seem to make a strong argument in his favor.

Upon returning to America in 1769 after his British training, Peale decided to teach his younger brother James how to draw.

James later became a famous painter himself, known for his miniature and still-life paintings.

In addition, after becoming the progenitor of a houseful of children, the patriarchal Charles Peale decided to teach them to paint as well.

Several of these heirs to his artistic crown, to whom he gave such artistic names as Rembrandt Peale, Titian Peale, Raphael Peale and Rubens Peale, became very well-known artists in their own right.

Even Sarah Miriam Peale, the daughter of James (making her Charles’ niece), devoted her life to art, becoming the first professional American woman portrait painter.

Genetic or Learned?

Perhaps Charles Peale was right. His family certainly is a testament to the theory that anyone can be taught to draw.
While someone who has made many failed attempts at learning to draw might argue that the success of Peale’s progeny is most likely a result of sheer genetics, perhaps it also has to do with his talent as a teacher.

While the theory of Genetically Inherited Acquired Traits (that is, supposedly learned traits passed down from generation to generation, such as artistic ability) has been fairly thoroughly disproven among the scientific community, perhaps, using the Peale family of artists as an example, this should be looked into once again.
Maybe some people don’t think I have the genes to be an artist, but that’s okay. Everyone is special in their own way, right?