Charles Willson Peale is in the News: “Our country’s first spin doctors: The painters of the American Revolution,” writes The Washington Post

The Washington Post, October 18, 2016 — In today’s issue of The Washington Post, reporter Michael Unchurch reviewed a new book featuring Revolutionary era artist Charles Willson Peale, among others.

Entitled “Of Arms and Artists,” the tome is by art historian Paul Staiti — an Alumnae Foundation Professor of Fine Arts at Mount Holyoke College, and the author of books and essays on John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, Samuel F. B. Morse, William Michael Harnett, and Winslow Homer. In 2009 he was honored with Mount Holyoke’s Distinguished Teacher award.

About the book, Unchurch writes: “Of Arms and Artists” brings those turbulent negotiations to volatile life, while delivering unexpected ironies as art historian Paul Staiti uncovers the stories of Trumbull and his fellow artists Charles Willson Peale, John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West and Gilbert Stuart.

Staiti addresses the wartime activities — or lack thereof — of artists who found themselves either on the battlefield or in awkward exile in London with their allegiances disguised or undeclared. And he drives home the point that the most talented iconmaker, Stuart, was as apolitical as they come. 

Unchurch adds: 

In 1817, former president John Adams publicly declared: “I consider the true history of the American revolution, and of the establishment of our present constitutions, as lost forever . . . Nothing but misrepresentations, or partial accounts of it, ever will be recovered.” In a personal letter to painter John Trumbull, he added, “Characters and Counsels and Action . . . are always neglected.”

Trumbull, at the time, was working on the four huge paintings that still adorn the United States Capitol Rotunda, including “Declaration of Independence,” which features Adams front and center. It’s a dignified, orderly canvas — and that, to Adams’s mind, was the problem. It reflected little of the wrangling and rancor that, 40 years earlier, had gone into hammering out the political credos that shaped the country’s system of government.

Staiti takes his five painters in chronological order, starting with Peale, whose portrait of then-Gen. George Washington, commissioned by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, was “the first piece of public art in the United States.” Peale fought under Washington. (One of his diary entries reads: “Finished the governors Portrait, the afternoon spent in Exercise of War”). He was also involved in confiscating Loyalists’ property in Philadelphia after the British abandoned the city. 

“Peale imagined for himself a central place in America’s rising glory,” Staiti writes. But it wasn’t to be. Far from receiving postwar state support for his patriotic artistic efforts, he found himself navigating “the vagaries of the American marketplace without a financial lifeline.”

Click here to read more of the Washington Post review.

Click here to buy the book. 


About Paul Staiti

The Alumnae Foundation Professor of Fine Arts at Mount Holyoke College is the author of books and essays on John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, Samuel F. B. Morse, William Michael Harnett, and Winslow Homer.

Staiti has lectured at the Louvre, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has been the recipient of senior fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities three times.

He teaches courses on American art and architecture, as well as American cinema. In 2009 he was honored with Mount Holyoke’s Distinguished Teacher award.

He lives in South Hadley with Monika Schmitter, a historian of Venetian art. His daughter Ivana lives in Portland, OR, and his son Adrian lives with his family in Singapore.

Learn more at paulstaiti.com.