Peale family reunion boasts paintings with a rich history

WASHINGTON (AP) They were named Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphael and Titian but they weren’t European artists — they belonged to a dynasty of American painters descended from Charles Willson Peale.
Peale descendants, including some artists, will meet June 19 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which is exhibiting 221 paintings and other items in a show that represents a small sample of the family’s vast production.
In addition to more than 1,000 portraits and a long family line, the prolific Peale also may have created a set of false teeth for George Washington to wear while sitting for portraits.
No one knows exactly how many portraits Peale did before he died in 1827, aged 85, said Lillian B. Miller, historian at the National Portrait Gallery.
“They’re still working on the definitive catalogue,” she explained.
Peale named most of his 17 children after painters — the girls for women artists known in his day: Sophonisba Angusciola, Angelica Kauffmann and Rosalba Carriera.
Peale’s younger brother, James, who was trained as a cabinetmaker, also became a painter under Peale’s tutelage. James brought up three of his five daughters in the profession. One of them, Sarah Miriam, is said to have been the first American woman to make a living as an artist.
Charles Peale was versatile. Trained as a saddle maker, he served in the Revolutionary army and as a member of the Pennsylvania legislature. He founded the country’s first museum, in Philadelphia.
He also was a farmer, watchmaker, musicologist and paleontologist supervising the excavation of an extinct mammoth-like animal called a mastodon near Newburgh, N.Y., and painting a picture of the job.
And he had a connection with the nation’s first president, having fought under Washington at the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and gone to Valley Forge to paint some of his staff.
Peale painted Washington several times. And as early as 1859, some suggested that Peale also had crafted a set of teeth for Washington, said King Laughlin, acting curator at Mt. Vernon.
“Washington had a lot of trouble with his teeth — he started losing them in his 20s,” said Dr. John Hyson, curator of the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, which has a permanent exhibit of his dentures. “He had five or six sets — one was buried with him.”
But Ms. Miller, the historian, said there was no documentary evidence that Peale made any set of Washington’s teeth. Although he did some dentistry, it was for members of his own family long after Washington’s death, she said.
Ms. Miller, who has studied the Peales for nearly 20 years, considers Charles Peales’ son, Rembrandt, the family’s most talented painter for his knowledge of pigments, technique and anatomy.
“But Charles was the most endearing,” she said.
In later life, Charles took lessons from his son.
Rembrandt Peale spent much of his life trying unsuccessfully to make his own image of Washington the standard, instead of Gilbert Stuart’s, whose painting of Washington is on the $1 bill.
At one famous sitting, Ms. Miller said, four members of the Peale family were busily depicting Washington at the same time.