Charles Peale tried saddle-making then clock repair before discovering his aptitude for portraiture. He raised money to sail to England at twenty-five to study under Benjamin West. After three years he returned to Philadelphia and eventually joined the Pennsylvania militia and rose to captain during the Revolutionary War. Peale outlived three wives, having ten children by his first, six by his second. His third wife, a Quaker woman, although sparred from serial childbirth, nonetheless died with Peale a still vibrant seventy. He frequently named his children after his favorite artists, including Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt, whose portrait of Thomas Jefferson currently hangs in the White House.
Peale painted Washington sixty times, all based upon an initial seven in-person portraits beginning in 1772. Compare this portrait of Washington, done the year he became president, with West's rendition of Franklin. One, bigger than life mythological Ben, the other sober republican, matter of fact patriot George. Peale's no big deal rationalism would lose favor to more heroic renderings of Washington as the great man's acclaim grew to legendary heights.
Four of John Trumbull's works hang in the Capitol Rotunda, yet for all his contemporary success he would always be hustling for money. The son of Connecticut's governor, a Harvard graduate at seventeen and, briefly, an officer under Washington early in the Revolutionary War. In 1780, while the war continued in the colonies, Trumbull sailed to England to also study under Benjamin West, as did Charles Peale. While there Trumbull would be imprisoned in retaliation for Washington having hanged a British officer as a spy. Trumbell would return to America upon his release several months later.
The Declaration of Independence, one of Trumbull's Rotunda paintings was a group portrait as much as it was celebrating the central event of the American revolution. Compare this revolutionary gathering with that of Eugene Delacroix's depiction of the French Revolution below. With Trumbull we have wealthy men presiding over an upheaval in restrained legal fashion while Delacroix's brotherhood of humanity are storming the barricades.
Liberty Leading the People
1798 - 1863
Born an aristocrat, Lafayette embraced the words of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and made his way to America in 1776. Already a skilled French officer Washington made Lafayette a major general in the Continental Army at the age of nineteen. He was wounded at Brandywine and later he commanded troops that trapped the British forces at Yorktown, leading to the Cornwallis surrender to Washington and subsequent freeing of the colonies from English rule.
Lafayette was instrumental in overturning French monarchy in 1789 but was later imprisoned for five years by more radical elements of the French Revolution. President James Monroe brought about Lafayette's return visit to America in 1824 where he toured all twenty-four states, hailed with affection as an American revolutionary hero. Upon his death he was buried in Paris under soil imported from Bunker Hill.
Copley uses dramatic lighting to electrify this climatic moment of Samuel Adams demanding the Royal Governor remove British troops from the area on the day following the Boston Massacre in March, 1770. Copley kept the focus on Adam's character by minimizing detail and keeping his pallet simple.
Revere's copper engraving titled The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th, 1770 and beneath the picture is the inscription that reads, in part:
If scalding drops from Rage from Anguish Wrung
If speechless Sorrows lab'ring for a Tongue,
Or if a weeping World can ought appease
The plaintive Ghosts of Victims such as these,
The Patriots copious tears for each are shed,
A glorious Tribute which embalms the Dead
Despite the passions of the time John Adams as defense attorney for these British soldiers was able to persuade a Boston jury to acquit the King's men of all charges.
Gilbert Stuart, whose iconic image of George Washington has resided on the one dollar bill for over a century, was in fact a loyalist to the crown and fled the colonies for England in 1775. Despite his financial success Stuart continually spent more than he made and returned to the United States in 1793 one step ahead of Debtors' Prison. Once stateside Stuart's goal was to entice George Washington into a portrait sitting from which he could make copies at one hundred dollars apiece. Two years later Washington came to Philadelphia to sit for the portrait that became the basis for the engraved image on today's dollar bill. Stuart's continued success could never match his spending, leaving his family deeply in debt upon his death. With no money for a proper burial Stuart's body was placed in an unmarked grave that has since never been found.
© Tom Taylor