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Peale family papers


Held at: Historical Society of Pennsylvania [Contact Us]1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19107

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

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Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) was a well-known Philadelphia artist, educator, and polymath in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He is best known for his portraits of George Washington, for being a founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and for establishing the Philadelphia Museum, a natural history and art museum. He outlived three wives, and many of his children. Several of his sons followed in their father’s footsteps, becoming artists and scientists and taking various roles in the family’s museum. Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) was a respected portrait artist, best known for his “Porthole” portrait of George Washington. Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885), the youngest of Peale’s sons, was a scientific illustrator, naturalist, and explorer who participated in many expeditions, including the U. S. South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, which surveyed lands in and around the Pacific Ocean.

Charles Willson Peale was born in April 1741, near Chestertown on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. His parents were Charles Peale, a schoolteacher, and Margaret Triggs. His father died in 1750, and the family moved to Annapolis, Maryland, where his mother found work as a seamstress. At thirteen, Charles was indentured to a saddlemaker. In his apprenticeship, he learned a variety of tool and craft skills with applications outside of saddlery. Released from his indenture four months early, he married Rachel Brewer in January 1762 and set himself up in business. Rather than limiting himself to making saddles, he added harness making, upholstery, and metal work to his shop's offerings. Peale took up portrait painting and became skilled enough to be offered commissions. He shifted from saddlery to painting portraits and signs, but struggled financially. A family friend, Beale Bordley, raised funds to send Peale to London, where he spent two years studying with the American-born painter, Benjamin West. In 1769, he returned home to Annapolis as a professional painter of portraits. His work required him to travel, often to Philadelphia, where he and his family finally settled in 1776. In August of that year, he enrolled in a local militia, which joined Washington’s Continental Army in December 1776. The company fought in the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton, after which, Peale was promoted to captain. Peale kept his painting kit with him, making miniatures as time allowed. George Washington sat for him in late September 1777. Commissioned by the Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1779 to paint the first official portrait of George Washington, Peale produced “George Washington at Princeton. 1

In 1782, he opened a portrait gallery attached to his studio and home at Third and Lombard in Philadelphia. In 1786, Peale added natural curiosities to his displays, and Peale’s Museum was established. The museum outgrew the premises and was moved along with the family to Philosophical Hall in 1794. In 1801, he made a trip to New York to excavate two mastodon skeletons near Newburgh. The reconstructed mastodon became a star exhibit at the museum, which had again outgrown its location. In 1802, Peale moved his museum to the upper floors of the now vacant State House. Another popular attraction was the physiognotrace, a device that could trace a silhouette, which would then be cut by the operator. Peale trained Moses Williams (1775/1777 - circa 1825) in this art. Williams was born enslaved to Peale, raised in his household, and freed at the age of 27. Silhouette cutting was lucrative for Williams, who was allowed to keep the proceeds. He was the primary operator of the machine for over a decade.

In 1810, Charles retired from managing the museum and purchased a farm in Germantown, which he named Belfield. Peale had trained several of his sons as artists, naturalists, and museum operators. Rubens Peale (1784-1865) took over management of museum operations upon his father’s retirement, and it continued to flourish. In 1821, the museum was incorporated as the Philadelphia Museum Company with 500 shares of stock, all held by C. W. Peale, and a board of five trustees. During the same year, a bout with yellow fever weakened Charles and killed his third wife, Hannah, prompting his return to the city.

The board elected Charles as manager of the Philadelphia Museum in 1822. He was assisted by his youngest son, Titian Ramsay Peale. Charles Willson Peale died in February 1827, intestate, leaving the entirety of the museum company stock and fate of his museum in the hands of his large family. In the summer of 1827, the museum moved to the third floor of the recently completed Philadelphia Arcade building. However, the building proved unsuitable due to frequent leaks which damaged the collections. With relocation a necessity, the board authorized a loan, revised the charter, and issued new stock. A building was purpose built at Ninth and George Street (now Sansom), with the museum to occupy the second and third floors. However, the financial affairs of the museum deteriorated in the following years, with debts exceeding $100,000 and no clear title to the land under the building 2. In the fall of 1845, the collection was sold to Edmund Peale, a grandson, who moved it to the former Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street. This new museum venture was in dire straits by 1848, and the mastodon skeleton was shipped to Europe for sale, ending up in the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany. Edmund closed his museum in 1849, and sold the remainder of the collection, except for the portraits, to Phineas T. Barnum and Moses Kimball. In 1854, the portraits were auctioned 3.

Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) was born in Lower Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to Peale’s first wife, Rachel Brewer. His father taught him to paint, and he became a respected portrait artist, making portraits of both Washington and Jefferson. As a young man he worked as an itinerant artist, when not assisting his father with museum affairs. He also spent several periods in Europe studying art and working. In 1814, Rembrandt opened Peale’s Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts, where he stayed until 1822. His brother, Rubens Peale, managed the museum after Rembrandt moved to New York. The museum closed and was sold in 1829. Throughout his career, Rembrandt made many portraits of George Washington. In 1823, he produced “George Washington, Patriae Pater,” known also as the “Porthole Portrait,” an idealized image of Washington within a stone arch. Subsequently, he made at least 79 copies and versions of the work. Rembrandt returned to Philadelphia in 1830, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885) was C. W. Peale’s youngest son, born of Peale’s second wife, Elizabeth de Peyster, in 1799. He was named for his elder half-brother who had died of yellow fever the year before at the age of eighteen. Like his brothers, Titian was an artist, but he specialized in scientific illustration. At the age of seventeen, he made his first expedition, traveling with George Ord, Thomas Say, and William Maclure to Florida. Over the next two and a half decades, he worked as a naturalist and artist on many more expeditions, culminating with the U. S. South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, which surveyed lands in and around the Pacific Ocean. Between trips, he worked in the family museum and drew illustrations for publication. Following the closure of the family museum, he went to work for the Patent Office in Washington, D. C.

1. The original now hangs at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Peale made many copies, one of which is at the U. S. Embassy in Paris.

2. The April 1845 board meeting minutes record a suit by the Trustees of late the Bank of the United States for $112,000, and the June minutes record a judgment against the Philadelphia Museum Company.

3. The City of Philadelphia purchased a group of them, which are displayed together at Independence National Historical Park.

Materials related to the Philadelphia Museum (Peale’s Museum) make up the bulk of this small collection. There is a small amount of correspondence and other personal papers from Charles Willson Peale and two of his sons, Rembrandt Peale and Titian R. Peale. The museum papers include: Charles Willson Peale’s manuscript of "A Walk Through the Philadelphia Museum;" records of subscriptions for tickets in Peale's Museum, 1794-1833; records of accessions and memoranda of the Philadelphia Museum, 1803-1842; minutes of the Philadelphia Museum, 1841-1845; and a rough minute book of the Philadelphia Museum, 1841-1845. Personal documents in the collection include extracts of letters from Charles Willson Peale, 1821-1823; copies of letters from Rembrandt Peale to his wife, 1830; letters to Titian R. Peale from naturalist George Ord, 1827-1854; Titian R. Peale’s catalog of birds and specimens collected in the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1841; and a volume of sketches Titian R. Peale.

Florida Museum. “Titian Ramsay Peale.” 2023. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. “George Washington at Princeton.” 2023. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. “George Washington, Patriae Pater.” 2023. Sellers, Charles Coleman. Charles Willson Peale. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969. Smithsonian American Art Museum. "Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture. Skeleton of the Mastodon." 2023. Sellers, Charles Coleman. Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1980.

Presented in part by members of the Peale family; some items purchased by HSP, including Philadelphia Museum admission token (accession number 2023.062).

Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Sara H. Nash.
Finding Aid Date
; 2023.
The processing of this collection was supported by a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Collection Inventory

"Subscriptions for Tickets in Peale's Museum for the Year 1794", (1794-1833).
Volume 1
Material removed from Volume 1, from third page of 1806 entries, (undated).
Box 1 Folder 1
Philadelphia Musuem, expenses and receipts, (1795-1819).
Oversize Flat file 1
"Records of the Philadelphia Museum", (1803-1842).
Volume 2
Philadelphia Museum admission token, engraved by Christian Gobrecht, (circa 1840).
Box 2
Photocopy of "A Walk Through the Philadelphia Museum," C. W. Peale, (undated).
Box 1 Folder 2-3
"A Walk Through the Philadelphia Museum," C. W. Peale, (undated).
Box 1 Folder 4-19
Philadelphia Museum checks (5), signed by Franklin Peale, (1832-1833).
Box 1 Folder 20
Philadelphia Museum manager reports (10), signed by Titian R. Peale, (1833-1835).
Box 1 Folder 21
Philadelphia Museum "Rough Minute Book", (1841-1845, 1858).
Volume 3
Material removed from Volume 3, from page 33, (1845).
Box 1 Folder 22
Philadelphia Museum minutes, (1841-1845).
Box 1 Folder 23-24
Peale's Museum portrait auction catalog, (1854).
Volume 4
Peale's Museum portrait auction catalog, 1854 [photocopy], (undated).
Box 1 Folder 25

Extracts of letters from Charles Willson Peale, 1821-1823, (undated).
Volume 5

Extracts of letters from Rembrandt Peale to Reuben Haines and Coleman Sellers, 1828-1829, (undated).
Box 1 Folder 26
Letters from Rembrandt Peale to his wife, Eleanor Peale, 1830 [typescript copies], (undated).
Box 1 Folder 27

Letters to Titian R. Peale from George Ord, (1827-1843).
Box 1 Folder 28-29
Catalog of birds and specimens from the U. S. Exploring Expedition, (1838-1842).
Volume 6
Material removed from Volume 6, (1838-1848, undated).
Box 1 Folder 30
Drawing book of Titian Ramsay Peale, (undated).
Volume 7
Material removed from Volume 7, museum notes, (1841).
Box 1 Folder 31

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