Mrs. Charles Willson Peale (Hannah Moore)
Charles Willson Peale, American, 1741–1827 American
61.59 x 51.43 cm (24 1/4 x 20 1/4 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
C. Kevin and G. Barrie Landry Gallery (Gallery 126)
Charles WillsonPeale’s likeness of his third wife is a testament to the artist’s continued interest in art, science, and experimentation. Although he was in his seventh decade in 1816, Peale was still working to improve his portrait-painting skills. He was influenced in this effort by his son, Rembrandt, also an artist (best known for his portraits of George Washington link). Rembrandt’s firm grasp of three-dimensionality and innate ability to create naturalistic images with great vitality was inspirational to his father, as Peale explained in an 1808 letter to the American ambassador to France, John Armstrong: “link has taught me to paint a more natural portrait than I could do at the best time of my life.”linkAt this time, Rembrandt also encouraged his father to experiment with an optical device to ensure a more accurate depiction.
Peale painted his wife Hannah (1755–1821) when she was sixty-one years old and he was in his seventy-sixth year. He had married her in 1805, after the deaths of his first wife Rachel, who bore him ten children, and his second wife Elizabeth, with whom he had another six children. Hannah, a Quaker from Newtown, a suburb of Philadelphia, helped raise the children from these marriages. Shortly after they wed, Peale wrote to his son Raphaelle, a painter of miniatures link, portraits, and still lifes, describing his new wife as, “a person of suitable years to me, a friend and uncommonly cheerful for her time of life, although as plain as any amongst friends.” link Peale portrayed Hannah on two other occasions: in a miniature portrait on ivory made at the time of their marriage (private collection) and in a tender portrait in which she holds Peale’s youngest child, Elizabeth, from about the same time (private collection). Hannah was also included with other family members in Peale’s Exhumation of the Mastodon (1805–8, Maryland Historical Society).
In this portrait, Hannah wears the plain garb of a Quaker woman: a yellow-brown dress with a wide white fichu and a white bonnet. Light streams from the left, shading the right side of her face and accenting the details of her weathered features. Enveloped in this warm atmosphere, she engages the viewer with her hazel eyes and a calm yet alert expression. Hers seems to be an honest face, painted with veracity and respect.
Using Hannah as his model, Peale set out to test an optical device recommended to him by his son Rembrandt, probably the “camera lucida”that was listed in his estate inventory. On February 20, 1816, Peale wrote to Rembrandt:
I have just made a complete essay in your New Method in a portrait of your Mother, and could not please myself. I tried it again and again, having purchased a new Glass, mounted it and used also good spectacles. Although the effect was pleasing, yet through so great a medium of glass I lost sight of the minute markings, so essential to a well-finished portrait, and therefore I laid the apparatus aside, and finished the picture in the common mode, and I believe it is the best portrait that I have ever executed . . . The face is an entire front, one half of it in shadow—front view of the shoulders. This you will say is the most difficult of all portraits.link
Thus Peale’s experiment with a mechanized device failed; he felt that only through careful and personal observation of his subject could he capture a true likeness.
The network of deep cracks in the paint surface indicates that Peale was also probably experimenting with his technique. His paint layers apparently dried at different rates, resulting in disfiguring drying cracks that worsened over time. A daguerreotype link in the MFA’s collection records the portrait at an earlier stage when the cracks were less noticeable. This damage, inherent to the painting, curtailed its exhibition. The portrait has recently been expertly conserved, and the MFA is now able to display one of Peale’s finest works. The cracks, still visible, seem only to enhance Peale’s study of aging and the passage of time.
1. Carol Eaton Hevner, “Lessons from a Dutiful Son,” in New Perspectives on Charles Willson Peale, ed. Lillian B. Miller and David C. Ward (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), 109.
2. Peale quoted in Edgar P. Richardson et al., Charles Willson Peale and His World (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1982), 102.
3. Peale quoted in Charles Coleman Sellers, Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s., 42, pt. 1 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1952), 165.
Janet L. Comey