The youngest daughter of James Peale and the niece of Charles Willson Peale, Sarah Miriam Peale was literally born to be a painter. Born May 20, 1800 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Sarah learned the family trade from her father and later from her cousin, Rembrandt, but, as with all the Peales, Charles Willson’s influence is unmistakable. Sarah’s Self-Portrait (above, from 1818) shows the classic Peale touch, warm and colorful, that always captured the twinkle of spirit in the sitter’s eye. Up until 1818, Sarah had concentrated on still lifes and miniatures, the permitted purview of women artists, but three months of intense study with Rembrandt gave her the confidence to tackle portraiture. That confidence, however, comes up short in this self-portrait in that it doesn’t identify her as a painter at all. At just eighteen years of age, Sarah had decades to prove to herself and the world that she was truly an artist worthy of her family’s legacy.
Although still life was considered a “safe” genre for women, i.e., lacking the dangers of the nude model that men could withstand, the still life in the Peale family achieved a higher quality than that of any other artists then working in America. Sarah’s Still Life with Watermelon (above, from 1822) abounds with the vibrant juiciness of the subject. Both Sarah’s cousins Raphaelle and Rubens excelled in the Dutch tradition of still life and undoubtedly guided Sarah’s progress. The same love of nature that led Sarah’s Uncle Charles to become the first great American naturalist can be seen in this faithful reproduction of red, ripe fruit. Sarah and her sister Anna Claypoole became the first women to join the PAFA in 1818, a landmark in the ascent of women in the arts in America.
Sarah’s growing prowess as a portraitist soon gained her a national reputation, pulling her away from her native Philadelphia to work in the social circles of Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, DC, and St Louis, Missouri, before returning to Philadelphia for the last eight years of her life. While in Washington from 1840 through 1843, Sarah painted the portraits of many politicians and dignitaries, including then Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Sarah’s portrait of then Viriginia congressman Henry Alexander Wise (above, from 1842), later the governor of Virginia who signed John Brown’s death warrant and a brigadier general for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, shows the facility with which she could paint the politically powerful. Sarah carried on the family tradition through her work but not through later generations of Peales, never marrying and having no children. Sadly, the same dedicated pursuit of her art that led her to a nomadic existence conflicted with the possibility of family, a price that many women artists still pay today. Although Sarah never received a colorful artistic name like her cousins Rembrandt, Raphaelle, and Rubens, her name belongs within the great tradition of the Peale family and their place in American art history.