Poor Mrs. Peale

The camera is still missing, so I’ve borrowed one from a friend. With any luck at all, operations will be back to normal soon.


Every so often I run across some tidbit of information, often only mentioned in passing, that gives me pause and I want to know more. This is one of them.

Rembrandt Peale, self-portrait, 1828

Rembrandt Peale, self-portrait, 1828

I was looking for more information about these paintings, done by American painter Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860). The first one caught my eye because I’ve never seen that kind of 1840’s millinery and wondered if it was an as of yet undocumented common (or at least “not uncommon”) turban style worn for the portrait or perhaps it was an artist’s prop. The second portrait captures a fabulous 1805 dress detail.

Rembrandt Peale (American painter, 1778-1860) Portrait of Harriet Cany Peale 1840.

Rembrandt Peale – Portrait of Harriet Cany Peale 1840.

Rembrandt Peale (American painter, 1778-1860) Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, ca. 1805.

Rembrandt Peale – Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, ca. 1805.

That was when I ran across a brief biography statement about the artist:

“Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860) was an artist & museum keeper. Rembrandt Peale was born the 3rd of 6 surviving children (11 had died) to his mother, Rachel Brewer, & artist father, Charles Willson Peale in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The father taught all of his children the general arts & science & to paint scenery & portraits.”

Wait a minute! Six children survived and eleven had died?! Seventeen children!!!! I had to know more about this woman.

Mrs. Charles Willson Peale (Rachel Brewer), Charles Willson Peale, 1790. Watercolor on ivory.

Mrs. Charles Willson Peale (Rachel Brewer), Rembrandt’s mother. Charles Willson Peale, 1790. Miniature. Watercolor on ivory.

Rachel Brewer was born May 14, 1744. She was the boyhood sweetheart of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). They were married on January 12, 1762 in Anne Arundel, Maryland. She was the mother of:

  1. Margaret (or Margeret?) Janes Peale (1763-1763)
  2. James Willson Peale (1765-1767)
  3. Eleanor Peale (1770-1770)
  4. Margaret Van Bordley Peale (1772-1772)
  5. Raphaelle (1774-1825)
  6. Angelica Kauffmann (1775-1853)
  7. Rembrandt (1778-1860)
  8. Titian Ramsay I (1780-1798)
  9. Rubens (1784-1865)
  10. Sophonisba Angusciola (1786-1859)
  11. Rosalba (1788-1790)
"Rachel Weeping" Her daughter Margeret died of smallpox (Charles Willson Peale, 1772–1776)

“Rachel Weeping” Her first child, Margeret, died of smallpox while in infancy. (Charles Willson Peale, 1772–1776)

Mrs. Charles Willson Peale (Rachel Brewer) and Baby Eleanor - Charles Wilson Peale (MetMuseum)

Mrs. Charles Willson Peale (Rachel Brewer) and Baby Eleanor, who also died in infancy. Charles Wilson Peale (MetMuseum)

So Rachel “only” had 11 children.

She also served as a stepmother to Charles Peale Polk and Betsy Polk, her brother-in-law’s children. (Captain Bobby Polk died in battle during the Revolutionary War and his wife, Elizabeth Peale Polk, died of tuberculosis.)

In addition, a young art student also lived with the family. It must have been chaos.

Rachel’s health declined gradually. She died April 12, 1790 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the age of 54. I haven’t been able to find the specific cause of her death, but just going through that many pregnancies and births shortens a woman’s life significantly.

Eleven children. I know this was not too extraordinary for the times, especially since so many died in infancy or childhood. But still.

Excuse me, I have to go lie down for a moment. (And I still don’t know anything more about the turban-thingy.)

PS – in case you’re wondering, as I was, where the number 17 came from: I had to go back and do the math because some of the biographical information is unclear. Her husband Charles, “unable to care for his many children himself” (I wonder why), began searching for a new wife immediately after Rachel’s death. He married Elizabeth de Peyster less than a year later and the couple had several children together. Altogether, he fathered 17 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood.

So that original biography is incorrect: Rembrandt’s mother did not have 17 children – his father did. But still…