Peales on Parade:
Portraits from the University Collection

by Dilys Winegrad

On October 25, the day after the Romare Bearden print exhibition comes down, eight portraits from Penn's collection of works by members of the Peale family will be displayed in the entry of the Arthur Ross Gallery. The main gallery will be hidden by a curtain, which, if drawn aside as Charles Willson Peale depicts himself doing in his famous self-portrait, will reveal not the portraits and specimens assembled for North America's first museum of natural history, but carpets of North Africa in course of installation. (The Gallery's next exhibition Mysteries of the Maghreb: Rugs and Textiles of North Africa opens November 1.)

This brief exhibition of "ancestor portraits" borrowed from offices all over the University draws attention to the important winter show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Peale Family: Creation of an American Legacy 1770-1870. Art institutions city-wide have joined forces to explore the legacy of the first family of painters of the American Colonies and the United States. Among them is the Rosenbach Museum and Library on Delancey Street, which will exhibit Peale miniatures in the French room starting December 10.

The family patriarch, Charles Willson Peale (1841-1827) was so confident that everyone could be taught to draw that he named four of his five sons after the great masters (Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian). Charles's brother, James Peale (1749-1831), lived with the painter's family until his own marriage and learned his craft in Charles's studio. Widely appreciated as a miniaturist he was, with his nephew Raphaelle, the first professional still-life painter in the country. In addition to his sons, Charles's daughter-in-law Harriet Cany Peale, also painted, as did James's daughter Anna Claypoole Peale (who, like her father, achieved fame for her miniatures). Mary Jane Peale and Anna Peale Sellersgranddaughters of Charles--were among the women who made up the third generation of artists.

Thus instead of a school, the Peales founded a dynasty. And because of its Colonial roots, the University acquired several important portraits as the result of commissions made while these artists were active.

The centerpiece of the exhibition at the Arthur Ross Gallery is Charles Willson Peale's 1772 portrait of David Rittenhouse. One of the most admired of Peale's contemporaries, Rittenhouse was a famed astronomer who also held the position of Director of the Mint. He was closely allied with the founders of the nation and of the College of Philadelphia, afterwards the University of Pennsylvania.

Rittenhouse started life as a clock maker. He had little formal education but his ability bordering on genius was recognized and encouraged by his contemporaries, including the Reverend Thomas Barton, who became his brother-in-law. Barton brought Rittenhouse to the attention of William Smith, the first provost of the College of Philadelphia. Despite their vastly different politicsRittenhouse was associated with the radical Pennsylvania government and the Constitutionalists who were defeated in 1790, while Smith, a Scottish émigré and a notable Tory, was pushed out of the University after the Revolutionthe Provost was impressed with Rittenhouse as a scientist. He arranged for Rittenhouse to receive an honorary M.A. degree from the College in 1767. The same year, as secretary of the American Philosophical Society, the Provost described an ambitious mechanical planetarium, or orrery, that would shortly be constructed by Rittenhouse, the Society's newest member. The Rittenhouse Orrery stands today in the Van Pelt Library.

After the Revolution, Rittenhouse was elected Treasurer of the Commonwealth. In 1779the same year Smith was forced to step down as provost Rittenhouse became a trustee, a position he resigned to become vice provost and professor of natural philosophy. When Rittenhouse decided to withdraw from the burdens of administration and lectures, he presented the University with a handsome, one-handed clock as a farewell gift. The trustees graciously accepted the clockbut reappointed Rittenhouse as a trustee. The Rittenhouse clock, duly signed and still functional, still stands in the President's Office.

In the estimation of his contemporaries, Rittenhouse was the natural heir to Franklin. A scientific genius who also served his country through politics, he was elected to fill Franklin's unexpired term in the Pennsylvania Assembly and succeeded him as President of the American Philosophical Society. William Smith recorded the occasion in verse:

What busy Mortal told you--FRANKLIN'S DEAD?
What though he yields to JOVE'S imperious Nodd?
With Rittenhouse, he left his MAGIC ROD!

After the early death of William Barton, Rittenhouse took a paternal interest in his nephews. Benjamin Smith Barton (1768-1815) was a graduate of the College of Philadelphia. He was appointed professor of natural history and botany in the medical department in 1789, and professor of materia medica (pharmacology) in 1796, before succeeding to the professorship of the theory and practice of medicine in 1813. This made him the third in line after John Morgan and Benjamin Rush.

William Shippen, whose portrait has also been brought over for this exhibition from Medicine's hall of portraits, was the second member of the medical faculty to be appointed after John Morgan.

Shippen and Morgan, who both journeyed to Edinburgh for their M.D.s, returned with the firm intent of making academic medical education available closer to home. John Morgan had graduated with the first class from the College of Philadelphia. In 1765, he read his Discourse upon the Institution of Medical Schools in America at Commencement ceremonies. The Trustees responded by appointing him professor of the theory and practice of medicine, thereby establishing the first Medical School in North America at the College of Philadelphia. Shippen obtained the professorships of surgery and anatomy and added midwifery to his appointments after the College officially became a university. As has been said of these early heads of departments they occupied not chairs but a whole divan!

The Arthur Ross Gallery set out to honor the Peales as well as those of their subjects who are part of the University's history. The exhibition also includes some portraits whose sitters were unconnected with the institution until their likenesses came into our collection. As images, the University may surely now lay claim to themif not with quite the force of The Woodlands' boast of " having Mr.Rembrandt Peale" in person!

Of his artist sons, Charles Willson Peale favored the second as likeliest to become a great painter. Before age twenty, Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) had studied with Benjamin West and painted a portrait of George Washington. Rembrandt is represented by two oils, one of them normally found in the President's house where visitors may enjoy the portrait without necessarily asking who Helmuth Justus was. The other is a better-documented figure, Colonel I. Mendes Cohen (b.1796), whose portrait hung in the family's home until 1929. The scion of a prominent Jewish family in Baltimore, Cohen enlisted in the 27th Regiment of the United States Army and is known to have defended Fort McHenry and to have been the first American to fly the flag on the River Nile.

Rembrandt's portrait of Cohen came to the University as a private bequest along with two works of his uncle, James Peale, a miniature Portrait of a Man and a silhouette of a Lady whose name has not come down to us.

Charles taught the art of silhouette painting to Moses Williams, a Peale family slave, who used the proceeds from his art to purchase his freedom. Classes in this formerly fashionable portrait style will be given in West Philadelphia at the Community Education Center (November 2) and at the University City Arts Center (November 8).

Dr. Winegrad, the director/curator of the Arthur Ross Gallery, is also, with Martin Meyerson, the author of the University history Gladly Learn and Gladly Teach.


Volume 43 Number 8
October 15, 1996

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