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…


4 thoughts on “Poor Mrs. Peale

  1. I don’t see why having multiple children would shorten a lifespan. My great grandma was born in 1898 and died in 1970 – she had 18 children who lived to adulthood. I know of at least 3 that died in infancy. I’m told there were 8 miscarriages as well. My guess, being the 18th century it might have been something as common as the flu now.
    There was an epidemic of it in the spring of 1790 in Philly.

    • Great article – thank you! Having been a nurse for a very long time, it was a fascinating read. And you’re right, miscarriages were very common.

      As for childbirth, it’s a very individual experience, as are most medical things. I’m glad your great-grandmother made it through – your “womenfolk” must carry a good set of genes. 😉

      When you look at any one woman, here is a huge variety in her baseline personal health and family medical history, as well as other factors. General environmental conditions make a big difference. As do health of other family members and access to medical care (such as it may be) since the family, household and, in many cases, and gardens still needed tending and those tasks (including helping work the fields) – in most cultures – traditionally falls to the woman unless she’s truly debilitated (technically, still her tasks – but you know what I mean).

      There are so many things that happen during a pregnancy – until relatively recently it was the #1 cause of mortality in women throughout the world. In undeveloped and underdeveloped countries it still is. Consider what can go wrong. Internal organs are compressed and are essentially working for two, which puts stress on them and can compromise function. Bladder infections are common and, especially in a population without access to antibiotics, can be fatal if left undiagnosed and/or treated. Hormone level rise and fall with each pregnancy and current investigation suggests a repeated exposure to these fluctuations may lead to cancer of the reproductive organs (which makes sense but I don’t believe it’s been conclusively proven). The increased blood volume that comes with pregnancy can cause rupture of diagnosed or undiagnosed aneurysms (nearly always fatal without immediate surgical intervention). Increased blood pressure can cause strokes and/or seizures. Much lower on the scale of risk, although it is high in some populations, a fistula (hole) can occur between the bowel and the uterus, resulting in massive infection. Organ failure due to organ stress and/or infection can occur and affect the heart, liver, kidneys. Severe nausea and vomiting can lead to dehydration and death. Uncontrolled post-partum hemorrhage means bleeding to death. And that’s the short list.

      And the process of birth itself is high-risk, since it places extreme stress on every part of a woman – both physically and mentally. Like everything else, some fare better than others.

      So for any one individual, it depends on a lot of things. Some women sail through pregnancy without so much as a burp, have an uncomplicated delivery and their body recuperates quickly. Other women barely survive one. And some don’t. Sure, it’s part of a woman’s normal bodily function. But that doesn’t mean it’s risk-free. Statistically speaking, every pregnancy is some degree of risk to the mother. If you’ve not made it back to “100%” after your first, you’re at higher risk with the next one.

      I once read a statement that women in undeveloped countries who don’t become pregnant have a lifespan comparable to women from developed countries. And developed countries have only been around for a relatively short period of time. If a woman’s baseline living conditions consist of chronic nutritional deficiency, poor (or missing) sanitation, full exposure to diseases and epidemics, and the like, the chances she will die in pregnancy or childbirth are pretty high. Reverse the conditions and the risk decreases significantly, but it never goes to zero.

      When I think about it in a statistical/biological context, it absolutely boggles my mind that any single one of us is here today, when you consider that each and every one of our female ancestors had to survive pregnancy and childbirth to that we could exist. (And gives me the sense of being a very small cog in a very big wheel.)

      ** I hope I haven’t inadvertently scared the begeezus out of anyone. It’s just the way it is, and has been for thousands of years.

      • I’d be curious about those developed/undeveloped statistics. Do they take into account domestic violence for instance? After all, if you aren’t getting pregnant, you are more likely not to be married/in a relationship; therefore, less likely to be a victim of domestic violence.

      • I don’t know what the parameters were for selecting the populations that were compared. Perhaps they just compared large populations as a whole, but that usually doesn’t tell you much. When you think of it, though, women may become victims of domestic violence if they don’t get pregnant as well as if they do. All goes back to the dreaded “it depends”, which says nothing and a lot at the same time.

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