The Artist in His Autobiography: Review of The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, vol. 5, The Autobiography of Charles Willson Peale, ed. Lillian B. Miller, Sidney Hart, David C. Ward, Lauren E. Brown, Sara C. Hale, Leslie K. Reinhardt.
Date of this Version
Documentary Editing, Volume 23, Number 1, March 2001.
ISSN 2476-1796 (electronic); ISSN 2167-1451 (print)
Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) painted more self-portraits than did any other American artist of his generation. Between the outset of his career in the 1760s and his death in 1827, Peale depicted himself no fewer than twenty times. He cast himself in oil paints, clay, and wax; in miniature, half-length, and life-size; alone, with family, and with strangers; and as a soldier, husband, father, scientist, and painter. dearly, autobiography held an abiding interest for Peale. There is no better demonstration of this than The Artist in His Museum, a monumental painting commissioned by the trustees of Peale's Museum in 1822 (fig. 1). In this granddaddy of self-portraiture, Peale raises a large red curtain, inviting spectators to explore the wonders that lie beyond in his emporium of "useful knowledge." Emblems of Peale's achievements in art and natural science encircle his figure: a palette, mastodon bones, and taxidermy instruments. Captivating in its theatricality and profundity of details, the painting projects an image of an accomplished, confident, public man. It is a seemingly effortless and persuasive summary of a long life well lived.