The original Peale Museum was founded in Philadelphia by Charles Willson Peale. Charles Willson was a fascinating and gifted man, bouncing between art, politics and science. After a short career in civil service he began painting in earnest, eventually studying under Benjamin West in London. Upon returning to the states, he settled in Annapolis, embarking on a career in portrait art. During this period he traveled to Charles Carroll of Carrollton’s Mount Clare mansion (in Carroll Park, Baltimore) to paint portraits of the Senator and his wife. A few years later Peale moved his family to Philadelphia, a city establishing itself as the artistic capital of America. There he painted the founding fathers and other Revolutionary War heroes, even painting the first ever portrait of George Washington. At his Philadelphia studio he began displaying his work along with the various wildlife he collected (C. W. Peale always maintained a strong interest in science). This location became known as Philadelphia Museum or Peale’s American Museum, one of the first natural history exhibits in America. He turned the operation over to son Rubens in 1810.
When the senior Peale retired, his other son Rembrandt, a famous painter in his own right, decided to start a museum in Baltimore. Opening in 1814, the Peale Museum (sometimes known as Rembrandt Peale’s Museum) consisted of paintings, manufactured pieces and animal specimens. The 3-story building, designed by Robert Cary Long, is crafted in the federal style, its most unique architectural feature being the 2-story gallery attached to the rear of the building. The gallery consists of two open rooms, the top floor lit by skylight, and the ground floor receiving sun through its eleven windows.
Inside the third floor studio, Sarah Miriam Peale fine-tuned her portrait skills under Rembrandt’s Tutelage. Sarah Miriam was the daughter of James Peale, Charles Willson’s brother, and cousin to Rubens and Rembrandt. She became one of the first professional female American artists, earning steady commissions for her portraiture.
The museum as a business never earned Rembrandt financial stability he desired for his family. Being short on initial investment funds, he sold stock in the museum to businessmen, granting them free access and a percentage of ticket sales. This arrangement proved fatal for Rembrandt, the financial burden too much for the artisan. In 1817, he and a group of local entrepreneurs started the Gas Light Company of Baltimore, targeting the city government for a gas street lamp contract. The company eventually succeeded, but not before Rembrandt was forced out due to his financial inadequacies. Younger brother Rubens took the museum over in 1822, but was compelled to close it permanently in 1830. Rembrandt promptly returned to painting as his primary profession.
Through the years the Peale building served as Baltimore’s City Hall (1830 to 1876), a public school, the water board’s headquarters and even an organ factory. In 1930 the building was renovated with John H. Scarff as lead architect. For over 60 years the institution showcased the broad history of Charm City, featuring portraits, photographs, fine art and anything else Baltimore. After closing in 1997, along with the City Life Museums, the salon’s exhibits were moved to the Maryland Historical Society.
Peale Museum reference links:
- The Architecture of Baltimore: An Illustrated History (2004)
- Baltimore: its History and its People, Volume 1 (1912)
- Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State (1948)
- The Amiable Baltimoreans (1984)
- Mr. Peale’s Museum (1980)
- The Chronicles of Baltimore (1874)
- Baltimore Past and Present (1871)
- Rembrandt Peale biography at Butler Art
- National Park Service entry