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Towards an American aesthetic

Charles Willson Peale, Portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader and their daughter Anne 1772

Focus work

Charles Willson Peale
Portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader and their daughter Anne 1772
Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased for the Cadwalader Collection with funds contributed by the Mabel Pew Myrin Trust and the gift of an anonymous donor 1983

Issues for discussion

In the 18th century having a portrait painted was considered an expression of social or familial pride. How does this portrait capture this ideal? Describe the relationship between the figures in this painting. How does their pose suggest a more informal approach compared to traditional portrait painting? Discuss how this could be a reflection of the ‘new’ America.

Artist biography

Charles Willson Peale initially worked as a saddler in Annapolis, Maryland, but in 1766 an elite group of patrons sponsored him to study in London under renowned painter Benjamin West. This venture allowed Peale to study neoclassical portrait painting, visit the studios of portrait painters and receive technical training in miniature painting and engraving. He also received his first portrait commission. On his return to Annapolis, Peale established a steady practice and introduced American clients to a sophisticated British aesthetic. In 1772 he produced the first portrait of George Washington and would produce six more. In 1776 Peale moved permanently to Philadelphia where he began his engagement with politics and joined the Pennsylvania militia; his political views polarised his clients and his business deteriorated as a result. In 1782 Peale opened a portrait gallery which in 1786 he expanded and named Peale’s Museum (it later became the Philadelphia Museum). With his obligations at the museum Peale’s practice decreased, although he did return to engraving and produced mezzotints of his portraits. It wasn’t until he retired in 1810 that he began painting again, continuing with portraiture and expanding into landscapes. Peale’s experiments and innovations laid foundations that many later artists would build on. He introduced a lively humanity into the family portrait, allegorical embellishments into official portraiture and bravura trompe l’oeil effects. Five of Peale’s 11 children – Franklin, Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian Ramsey – became prominent artists.

More information

Philadelphia Museum of Art website, including audio

Further activities

The development of art in America is first a story of obstacles overcome. The process of colonisation took precedence over the cultivation of the arts. Aspiring artists had to seek training, find patrons, advance taste and establish cultural institutions. Even in the 18th century, an accomplished portraitist like John Singleton Copley could still complain that painting was seen as a ‘usefull [sic] trade… not as one of the most noble Arts in the World’.

British America favoured imported traditions, especially the presentation of social standing in portraiture. Revolutionary sentiment, however, introduced a new American character and elements of an American aesthetic began to emerge. As revolutionary leader John Adams observed in 1775, the British culture of ‘taste and politeness’ was giving way to the republican virtues of ‘fortitude and enterprise’. In the early 19th century, landscape painter Thomas Cole advocated the distinctive beauty of American scenery; here, he said, ‘the silent energy of nature stirred the soul to its inmost depths’.