The Peale family is best known as a family of artists; however, family interests and activities were much more wide-ranging. The best known Peale is Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827, APS 1786), who produced more than one thousand paintings, including hundreds of portraits of leading Americans during the colonial and early national periods. Peale was married three times, to Rachel Brewster (1744-1790), Elizabeth de Peyster (1765-1804), and Hannah More (1755-1821). He had eighteen children, eleven of whom reached adulthood. Three of Charles Willson Peale’s sons became artists: Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860), and Rubens Peale (1784-1865). A fourth son, Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885, APS 1833), was a naturalist (who made drawings on the exploring expeditions he accompanied) and pioneer in photography, and another son, Benjamin Franklin Peale (1795-1870), became a naturalist and paleontologist. Peale’s daughter Sophonisba Angusciola was married to Coleman Sellers (1781-1834), an inventor and manufacturer of machinery, including locomotives. Two of their sons, George Escol Sellers (1808-1899) and Coleman Sellers (1827-1907, APS 1872), were inventors and engineers. The latter served as director of the construction of the hydro-electric power development at Niagara Falls. He was married to Cornelia Wells Sellers (1831-1909). One of their grandsons was Charles Coleman Sellers (1903-1980, APS 1979), a librarian and historian and the author of several studies of the Peale family, including a Charles Willson Peale biography.
Charles Willson Peale was born in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, in 1741. His father Charles had been banished from Britain to the colonies for embezzling funds while working as a clerk in the General Post Office at London. By 1740 the elder Charles was employed as a teacher in Annapolis; later that year he married Margaret Triggs. The couple lived in modest circumstances. They had five children. Charles Willson’s father died when he was still a boy. At the age of twelve Charles was apprenticed to Nathan Waters, a saddle maker in Annapolis. In 1762, Charles opened his own shop; that same year he married Rachel Brewer. The couple eventually had eleven children, six of whom reached adulthood. They also adopted Peale’s orphaned nephew Charles Peale Polk.
Peale struggled to support his family as a saddler. Within a couple of years, he added first upholstery and harness making, and then watch and clock repair to his business. He also tried his hand at painting. In 1763 he began to advertise himself as a sign painter. That year, he also received his first painting instruction. His teacher was the prolific portrait painter John Hesselius, the son of Gustavus Hesselius, America's first portrait painter of note. Peale wrote in his autobiography that he traded one of his best saddles for the opportunity to watch the younger Hesselius paint.
Soon his talent attracted the attention of several members of the local gentry, including Charles Carroll, Governor Horatio Sharpe, Daniel Dulaney, and Benedict Calvert, who decided to provide funds for young Peale to study with Benjamin West in London. Peale stayed in London from 1767 to 1769, during which time he completed two full-length portraits of William Pitt. He also prepared an engraving of the painting for sale in North America. Furthermore, Peale met Benjamin Franklin, who had been acquainted with his father, and he visited the studios of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Francis Cotes, and Allen Ramsey.
For six years after his return to North America, Peale made his home in Annapolis. Here he gave lessons in painting to his brothers St. George (1745-1788) and James (1749-1831). The latter subsequently became a notable miniature painter; two of James' daughters, Anna Claypole (1791-1878) and Sarah Miriam (1800-1885), would become professional painters as well. During this period Charles Willson also traveled throughout the middle colonies to paint the portraits of prominent figures. In 1772 he visited Mt. Vernon to paint the first of what would ultimately be seven life portraits of George Washington. In 1775 Peale moved to Philadelphia in hopes of increased patronage. Demand for his portraits was indeed rising, and he was busy with commissions from several prominent families.
Peale was an ardent supporter of the Revolution, joining the city militia as a private, rosing to the rank of first lieutenant, and participating in the battles of Trenton and Princeton. He painted several officers and also sometimes their wives at various encampments, including portraits of Arthur St. Clair, Benjamin Lincoln, Nathanael Greene, and his well-known full-length painting of Washington at the Battle of Princeton. After the evacuation of Philadelphia by the occupying British, Peale became an active member of the “Furious Whigs.” He was also a member of a Committee of Correspondence, the “Constitutional Society,” and the General Assembly of Pennsylvania (1779 to 1781). However, in 1787, in part due to fear that his political views and activities would antagonize his patrons, Peale left politics. Between 1788 and 1791 Peale painted numerous portraits or wealthy and prominent Americans primarily in Philadelphia and Maryland, including Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
In 1782 Peale began to exhibit his art in a gallery in his home. In the mid-1780s he opened a “Repository for Natural Curiosities,” a scientifically organized museum with displays of natural history objects alongside his portraits of notable Americans. He formally retired as a professional artist in 1794, though he continued to paint portraits of family members, friends, and for his museum. He exhibited some of his and his sons’ paintings in the Columbianum, an art school and museum he founded that year to support art and artists in Philadelphia. In 1795 Peale’s Museum (and his family) moved into the American Philosophical Society's building, Philosophical Hall. He had been elected to membership in 1786, and he served as the Society’s curator from 1788 to 1810.
A major, and at the time unique, component of the museum was its collection of natural history specimen that were displayed according to Linnaean taxonomy. (Peale was a great admirer of the Swedish botanist and named his son Charles Linnaeus in his honor.) Peale’s first specimen evidently was a paddle fish, a gift from Professor Robert Patterson (1743-1824, APS 1783) of the University of Pennsylvania. The collection soon included an extensive variety of animals and objects, including birds, insects, amphibian animals, fossils, minerals, and stones. With the help of his son Raphaelle, Peale prepared many of the animals in his exhibition himself. In addition, he painted the backgrounds of their “habitat arrangement,” a kind of display that he originated. In 1793 he sent Raphaelle to Georgia and South America to collect specimens, and in 1801 he organized an expedition--the first scientific in the new United States--to exhume the bones of a mastodon that had been found in upstate New York. His efforts were supported by his friend President Thomas Jefferson and by the American Philosophical Society. Peale and his son Rembrandt traveled to New York, helped exhume the skeleton, transported it back to Philadelphia, and mounted it in the museum. The skeleton became an immediate sensation. Peale captured the unearthing of the bones in his painting “The Exhumation of the Mastodon” (1806-1808). Peale’s Museum was the most successful institution of its kind in the early United States.
Even though Peale and other leading figures, including Thomas Jefferson, believed that his institution fulfilled an important educational function in the early republic, Peale never succeeded in securing public funds toward its support. This meant that he had to rely on private aid and assistance. Nevertheless, in 1802 he was able to convince the Pennsylvania legislature to grant him free use of the old State House in Philadelphia (now known as Independence Hall). He subsequently moved his exhibitions from the APS to the second floor of the state house.
In 1804 Peale’s second wife Elizabeth died in childbirth; the infant, her seventh child, also died. The next year he married Hannah Moore. The couple did not have children; instead, Hannah helped raised her husband’s offspring from his previous marriages.
In addition to his work with the museum, Peale obtained patents for fireplace improvements and a portable vapor bath. He also avid user of a writing machine, called the polygraph, whose complex of telescoping arms a created a copy of whatever as he wrote. He made models for his friends Jefferson and Benjamin Henry Latrobe; both men used it to duplicate many of their letters. He also published essays on various topics, including the building of bridges (1797), health (1803), and “Domestic Happiness” (1812). In 1805 a group of artists and business leaders, including Peale and the sculptor William Rush, founded the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the first art school in the nation.
In 1810 Peale retired to “Belfield,” a farm in Germantown, Pennsylvania. He spent much time on technical experiments and the care and cultivation of his gardens. His sons--Franklin, Titian Ramsay, and Rubens--gradually took over most of the work at the museum, though Peale was never one to keep hands off, and he took a generous stipend from the museum for himself. In 1816 Peale replaced the museum’s whale oil lights with gas lights, the first in Philadelphia. Three years later the city ordered the lights removed, due to the fire hazard they posed. In 1821 the state legislature incorporated the Philadelphia Museum Company, composed of Peale’s sons Raphael, Rembrandt, and Rubens, his son-in-law Coleman Sellers and Pierce Butler.
In 1822 Peale completed one of his most famous paintings, his “Self Portrait: The Artist in His Museum.” The image of himself in front of the main exhibit room with displays of natural history objects and paintings depicts Peale as artist, museum keeper, naturalist, and educator. A few months before the museum was scheduled to move into larger quarters, Peale died in Philadelphia. By that time the collection numbered more than 100,000 objects. Peale’s oldest son and first child to survive childhood Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825) received instruction in painting from his father. Beginning in the mid-1780s, he also assisted him in the museum. In 1795 the museum’s catalogue indentified him as “Portrait Painter at the Museum,” and he exhibited several of his painting in the Columbianum. In 1796 he and his brother Rembrandt moved to Baltimore to open a museum; however, economic problems contributed to its failure less than two years later. In 1797 Raphaelle married Martha “Patty” McGlathery (1775-1852). They had eight children.
Raphaelle also conducted scientific experiments that led to, among other things, a patent of a solution for the preservation of ship’s timber. In addition, he collaborated with his father in the development of new methods for heating rooms, such as the use of sliding fireplace dampers.
Charles Coleman Sellers wrote in his biography of Charles Willson Peale that Raphaelle never succeeded in making a living as an artist, and that his life was marked by long absences from home, financial instability, heavy drinking, and chronic illness. In 1803 and 1805 he traveled through the South with a physiognotrace, a device that traced profile silhouettes on paper and could be operated by the sitter himself. His income was substantial enough to allow him the purchase of a “handsome House” in Philadelphia. In 1804 he and Rembrandt went to South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland to exhibit the mastodon. He also traveled to Washington to take President Jefferson’s profile, and then ventured to Boston. Here he encountered a more competitive environment that rendered it challenging to earn a living. In 1805 he was shipwrecked on his way back to Georgia, losing some of his material, including gilt frames. More misfortune followed: he broke his leg in a fall from his horse, contracted a tropical disease, and evidently suffered a kind of mental breakdown. He returned to Philadelphia in 1806, broken in health and finances.
By the end of the decade, Raphaelle's growing family relied on his father for support. Raphaelle’s problems were exacerbated by alcoholism, arthritis in his fingers, and a painful, recurring case of gout. In 1809 he was admitted to Pennsylvania Hospital for “delirium.” Nevertheless, his later years were marked by periods of productivity. He undertook several more Southern tours to sell his profiles. He also completed miniatures of Franklin Peale and Titian Ramsay. Beginning in 1811 he regularly exhibited paintings at the Pennsylvania Academy annual exhibitions. While he painted small portaits early in his career, his area of greatest expertise was still life. Indeed, some historians have called Peale the first American professional still life painter. By the early 1820s, he was receiving considerable critical and also some financial success. It was during this period that he completed one of his best-known paintings, “Venus Rising from the Sea--A Deception.” He also received commissions for portraits, including one by Maryland Governor Samuel Sprigg.
Raphaelle spent the winter of 1823/24 in Charleston, South Carolina, returning to Philadelphia in time to take part in the celebrations around the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette and to sell profiles of him. Toward the end of his life Raphaelle tended to pay merchants for goods and services with his paintings. He died in Philadelphia.
Rembrandt Peale was a painter as well. Born at the Vanarsdalen farm, near Richboro, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, during the British occupation of Philadelphia, Rembrandt was an accomplished artist and was helpful in the creation and maintenance of the Peale Museum. In 1802, to further his practice of painting, Rembrandt traveled to England and met Benjamin West, who had been helpful to C. W. Peale. It is suggested by Horace Wells Sellers, in his biographical notes on Rembrandt, that it was contact with West that led the former to move from portraiture to biblical, historical and allegorical paintings. Indeed, aside from the portrait of Washington, which won the Silver Medal of the Franklin Institute, Rembrandt’s most famous and well received painting, “The Court of Death,” is indicative of this move from portraiture.
In 1808 and 1809 C.W. Peale commissioned Rembrandt Peale to travel Europe painting the portraits of certain French Savants for inclusion in the Peale Museum. It was during this time that Rembrandt was offered Imperial patronage if he would establish himself in Paris. Though he ultimately decided to return to America, the influence of the court paintings had a lasting impression on Remrandt's future work. At the time that Charles Willson Peale gave up portraiture to run the museum, Rembrandt attempted to do both, creating a museum in Baltimore while continuing his painting. This eventually proved a failure, though Rembrandt did succeed Col. Trumbull as president of the American Academy in New York. Rembrandt Peale died in Philadelphia in 1860 at the age of 83.
Charles Willson’s third surviving son, Titian Ramsay Peale, born in 1780, showed an interest in natural history at an early age, and was helping his father clean and dress specimens for the museum before the age of 13. Titian fell ill during the yellow fever epidemic of 1798 in Philadelphia. Responding positively to treatment at first, Titian accompanied his father to New York to tend to William DePeyster, Charles Willson Peale’s father-in-law. While there Titian’s condition worsened and he died “at 8 o’clock 8 Sept.” In his diary, Charles Willson laments the early death of his son, “Thus departed a youth whose talents for preserving subjects of natural History was very general, Birds, Quadruped or Fish &c. equally easy to him … America has cause to mourn the loss of this promising youth.”
Apparently less interested in a career as a painter than many of the other members of the family, Rubens Peale was instrumental as a museum director, not only of his father’s Philadelphia Museum, but also of that of the Baltimore Museum and his own museum in New York. Starting at an early age, Rubens was a constant assistant to his father in running the museum, and in 1810 when Charles Willson started thinking of retiring to pursue other interests, Rubens fully took over. However, as Charles Willson began to tire of life on the farm, he returned to the museum. Rubens moved to the Baltimore museum, thus replacing Rembrandt Peale. After continued trouble with Baltimore Museum stockholders, Rubens started his own museum in New York. The New York Museum opened on October 26, 1828, which purposely coincided with the opening of the Erie Canal; Rubens took advantage of the fanfare of the latter event to benefit for former. For several years the museum did well financially, despite close proximity of a major competitor, Scudders American Museum (later owned by P.T. Barnum and known as Barnum’s American Museum). The panic of 1837, however, left Rubens broke, and he eventually sold his collection to P.T. Barnum, who also bought the majority of the collections from the Baltimore and Philadelphia museums. Rubens finished his life in the mountains of Pennsylvania. He was, as biographer Charles Coleman Sellers says, “a learned, affable country gentleman – an authority on many obscure branches of knowledge, such as mesmerism, a fad whose mysteries he had first introduced to the American public,” and as an artist, finally taking up still-life painting in the last years of his life; he died in 1865.
Benjamin Franklin Peale showed an aptitude for mechanics. He aided Matthias Baldwin in the creation of the locomotive which was displayed in Peale’s Philadelphia Museum. After serving in the Peale museum as manager from 1822-1833, Franklin, as he was called, entered the service of the U.S. Mint. Two years spent in Europe studying various mints culminated in the introduction of steam presses at the U.S. Mint in 1835-1836. Franklin Peale remained with the Mint until 1854, retiring as Chief Coiner. He died in 1870.
Named after his recently-deceased brother, Titian Ramsay Peale, the youngest son of Charles Willson Peale, aided his father in the management of the museum. Titian Ramsay traveled extensively to supply specimens and images for the museum. In 1818 he traveled with George Ord and Thomas Say to collect subjects in Georgia and Florida. In 1819 Titian Ramsay joined Major Stephen Harriman Long’s Scientific Expedition as zoologist, painter and as assistant naturalist, “to prepare the skins of such animals as may be discovered.” Titian Ramsay also served as naturalist under St. Charles Wilkes of the United States Exploring Expedition to the South Seas. Peale's various travels resulted in illustrations for several important works on natural history, including Charles Lucien Bonaparte’s American Ornithology (1825–33) and Thomas Say's American Entomology (1824–28). In 1843 Titian Ramsay took control of the now distressed museum. By this time, however, it was too late the save the institution and the collection was sold off that same year. From 1849 to 1872 Titian Ramsay Peale served as Examiner in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., dying in 1885.
Daughters of Charles Willson Peale include Angelica Kauffman Peale (1775-1853), who married Alexander Robinson; Sophonisba Peale (1786-1859), who married Coleman Sellers; Sybilla Miriam (1797-1856) who married Andrew Summers; and Elizabeth De Peyster Peale (1802-1857), who married William Augustus Patterson.
The marriage of Sophonisba Peale (1786-1859) to Coleman Sellers linked the Peale and Sellers family. The Sellers were a family of engineers and inventors, many of whom made significant improvements in the fields of papermaking and locomotive engineering. John Sellers (1728-1805, APS 1768) served as a member of the Provincial Council and was, by profession, a surveyor. John was on the APS committee to observe the transit of Venus in 1769.
Apprenticed as a lawyer, Coleman's father Nathan eventually turned to paper making, and quickly became a leader in the fledging paper industry in America, focusing on the production of wire molds. During the Revolution Nathan enlisted in Colonel John Paschall’s Flying Camp of Pennsylvania militiamen and marched into New Jersey in 1776. A resolution of Congress, however, put an end to his military life and sent him home to make paper, since Nathan was one of the few in America with the necessary experience.
After the war, demand for his paper molds bloomed. Orders for specific watermarks came from across the country, from banks and institutions eager to have a remedy for counterfeit money. He made innovations in the field that were eventually carried back to the more developed paper mold markets of Europe. To match the new demand, Nathan, with his brother David, started N. & D. Sellers, a firm that engaged in wire working and in the manufacture of wool cards and paper molds.
Coleman Sellers (1781-1834) carried on the N. & D. Sellers firm after the death of David Sellers in 1813 and the retirement of Nathan Sellers in 1817. Coleman moved the family business to land outside of Philadelphia – near present-day 69th Street – and expanded into the locomotive business. In this new area, he is best known for several improvements to the design of locomotives, including the pivoted forward truck and wooden frames in the running gears.
He and Sophonsiba Peale Sellers had six children, of whom several would continue in the family lines of locomotive engineering and papermaking.
Second son of Coleman and Sophonsiba Sellers, George Escol Sellers worked with his father to develop the improvements in locomotives. Taking these improvements further, Escol created a hill-climbing locomotive for the Isthmus of Panama in 1847. In 1854 Escol established “Sellers’ Landing,” an industrial center on the Ohio River. In 1864 he invented a new process for paper making, using grass and reed rendered to pulp and forced by steam against a baffle plate.
Many of Escol's plans ended in frustration and tragedy. His wife and all but one of his children died while living at Seller’s Landing, and this remote location made it difficult for his manufacturing ventures to be successful. During these hard years, Charles Dudley Warner first heard of Escol’s name and applied it to The Gilded Age , the novel he wrote with Mark Twain. The association with the name of the shady character from the book was source of further frustration for Escol.
In later years, Escol moved to Tennessee and devoted significant time to family genealogy and history. After his death in 1899 his paper making process enjoyed resurgence due to paper scarcity and brought him posthumous fame. Youngest son of Coleman and Sophonsiba Sellers, Coleman Sellers, Jr. (1827-1907), was a prominent engineer and inventor. After finishing school, Coleman Sellers went to work at an early age at the Globe Rolling Mill in Cincinnati, Ohio, which was operated by two of his older brothers, Charles and Escol. He showed early promise as in engineering and made several significant improvements to the Mill. After several years with the Globe Rolling Mill, serving part of the time as superintendent, Coleman Jr. began under contract to design and construct locomotives for the Panama Railway in 1850-1851. In 1856, at the behest of his second cousin William Sellers, Coleman moved to Philadelphia and assumed the position of chief engineer of William Sellers & Company. In this capacity he received patents for various inventions and developed an interest in the transfer of electrical power. After leaving William Sellers & Company in 1886, Coleman became a consulting engineer of the Cataract Construction Company, formed to develop the hydro-electric power of Niagara Falls. In this position, Coleman worked with the International Niagara Commission, and helped determine the types of turbines and generators to use, and the best method of transporting the power generated by the Falls. He also developed the large dynamos installed at the power plant. His work at Niagara Falls was his crowning achievement as an engineer, as he overruled the opinion of his principal colleague, Lord Kelvin, and successfully established the first large scale use of alternating currents. Coleman worked closely with his son Horace Wells Sellers, also an engineer with the Cataract Construction Company. Coleman Sellers also had a lifelong interest in natural philosophy and contemporary developments in physics and other fields of the emerging natural sciences. While working in Cincinnati, this interest resulted in the formation of a gentleman’s debating and lecturing club around the sciences. In later life, Colman continued to find time for his experiments in physics and telegraphy, as well as microscopic and photography. He is credited with the photographic inventions that moved forward the usefulness of the art by rendering plates easier to use, and by inventing the “kinematoscope,” an early precursor to the motion picture.
Coleman Sellers served as Vice-President of the American Philosophical Society and as President of the Franklin Institute. He was instrumental in the standardization of screw threads, a major step in the world of mechanics, and was influential in arguing against the adoption of the metric system in the United States, principally in a paper given before the Mechanical Society of American Engineers in 1880 entitled “The Metric System: Is It Wise to Introduce it into Our Machine Shops.” He died in 1907 in Philadelphia.
Coleman’s grandson, Charles Coleman Sellers (1903-1980, APS 1979), was a noted historian of early America, best known for his numerous works on the life and artistic production of the family of his own great-great grandfather, Charles Willson Peale. Charles Coleman Sellers had much to do with the assembling of the Peale-Sellers Family Collection at the American Philosophical Society.
Sellers was born in 1903 in Overbrook, Pennsylvania, the son of Horace Sellers, an engineer and architect, and his wife Cora Wells. He attended Haverford College (1925) and Harvard (MA 1926). In 1932 Sellers married Helen Earle Gilbert; they had two children. She died in 1951, and the following year, he married Barbara Roberts. From 1932 to 1938 the Sellers operated Tracey’s Book Store in Hebron, Connecticut. Sellers subsequently accepted a position as librarian at Wesleyan College (1937-1949) and in 1956 became librarian of the Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., Research Library of American Painting at Winterthur, Delaware, and of Dickinson College (1956-1968). For several years in the late 1940s, Sellers worked at the American Philosophical Society as Research Associate.
Sellers' first publications dealt with such figures as Lorenzo Dow (1928), Theophilus Ransom Gates (1930), and Benedict Arnold (1930), and he also wrote several plays, three of which were produced. However, Sellers is best known for his work on the voluminous artistic output of the Peale family and on the Peale Museum. His publications include a catalogue raisonné of Peale, titled Portraits and Miniatures of Charles Willson Peale (1952), and a biography of Peale that earned him the Bancroft Prize for History in 1970. Sellers also conducted research on Benjamin Franklin and others among the Peales' contemporaries, and he wrote a history of Dickinson College (1973).
Sellers was a member of the Society of the Cincinnati. He received an honorary doctorate from Temple University in 1957 and was named Historian of the Year by the Cumberland County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society in 1972. He was elected to membership in the APS in 1979; Dickinson College awarded him an honorary degree that same year.
Seller’s second wife died in 1979, and he became engaged to Peggy Barnes. He also completed his twelfth and final book, titled Mr. Peale’s Museum . However, he did not live to see its publication. He died in 1980 while on a visit to his daughter in Australia.
From the guide to the Peale-Sellers Family Collection, 1686-1963, 1686-1963, (American Philosophical Society)
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