Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Charles Willson Peale in Bladensburg, 1789

Charles Willson Peale in Bladensburg, 1789

            Many famous individuals have traveled through Bladensburg, and the record of the 1789 visit of painter Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) is one of the most interesting.  Peale was the patriarch of a large and talented family, who preserved for us a legacy of visual and written information about America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Peale recorded his experiences in writing nearly as voluminously as he recorded his subjects in paint; his visit to Bladensburg is a good example.

            Peale left Annapolis on Friday, 14 August 1789, crossing the Patuxent River at Queen Anne, and spending the night with Benjamin Hall at his Partnership plantation.  On the following morning, Peale left Hall’s “to go to George Town, and reached Bladensburg at mid day – I waited on Mrs. Ross, who informd me that Mrs. Lounes (sic) wanted her portrait in miniature to give one to each of her Children.”  Ariana Brice Ross was the daughter of John Brice of Annapolis, and the widow of Dr. David Ross.  Peale would have known Mrs. Ross from their younger days in Annapolis; her brother, Edmund Brice, was Peale’s first pupil in painting.  Elizabeth Tasker Lowndes was the daughter of Benjamin Tasker of Annapolis, and widow of Christopher Lowndes.  David Ross and Christopher Lowndes were two of the most prominent citizens of Bladensburg in its early years.  Their two Bladensburg houses, built in 1746, were among the finest houses in the town.  Christopher Lowndes had died in 1785, and Mrs. Lowndes, in failing health, wanted a portrait of herself for each of her seven children.

               On Sunday, 16 August, Peale “began a miniature of Mrs. Lounes” and on the next day “began a portrait of Mrs. Lounes in head size” (i.e., life size, oil on canvas), continuing also to work on the miniature.  He recorded in his journal over the next few days: “I persue my business of painting the portraits of Mrs. Lounes, and finish all of them 7 in number vizt. 4 in oil and 3 in miniature, except the drapery of one of the miniatures which was for Mrs. Francis Lounes, who living in George Town, neglected sending me directions about it – and I thus determined to compleat it at George Towne.”

            On 8 September, after more than three weeks in Bladensburg, Peale wrote: “Mr. Benjn. Lounes paid me in full for these pictures 78 £ 15, that is 8 Guineas for the first Miniature 7 Guineas for the first head size & 6 Guineas for each of the 5 other Copies – making in all 45 Guineas.  I paid Peggy Adams for my board £ 3:10. And for keeping my Horse – 4.15.0   And left Bladensburg.”[1]

            Peale arrived in Georgetown on the 9th of September, and began a painting of the three grandchildren of Elizabeth Tasker Lowndes, children of Rebecca Lowndes and Benjamin Stoddert.  His journal gives considerable detail about the planning and painting of the children’s portrait[2] and also the completion and framing of the portraits and miniatures of Mrs. Lowndes.  On 18 September, he “left George Town and reached Bladensburg to a late dinner.”  Staying overnight in Bladensburg, probably at Margaret Adams’ inn, Peale left Bladensburg on the 19th, heading north toward home in Philadelphia, recording a poignant note as he departed: “left Bladensburg at X [10] O clock, and I am apprehensive about the same hour Mrs. Lounes departed this life. – it was accidental that I visited Bladensburg, and I am happy that I was in time to paint those 7 portraits which she desired for her 7 Children.”[3]  Heading north, Peale arrived in Philadelphia on 23 September.

Charles Willson Peale had a habit of writing into his journal curiosities that he found interesting.  For example, while working on Mrs. Lowndes’ portraits in Bladensburg, Peale interrupted the recording of his progress by copying directions for “preserving Plants in their Original Shape & Colour . . . “  Similarly, just after reaching Baltimore on 20 September, he copied into his journal innkeeper Margaret Adams’ detailed recipe for pickling sturgeon.

By Susan Pearl, May 22, 2013.

[1] Margaret Adams was an elderly black woman who ran a successful Bladensburg inn that was preferred by President Washington..  See letter from Thomas Lee Shippen to William Shippen, 15 September 1790, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.

[2] Now owned by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America and hanging at Dumbarton House in Georgetown.

[3] At least two of the oil portraits of Mrs. Lowndes are known to survive – one was last recorded in the ownership of an art dealer, and the other is now owned and displayed at the Washington County Museum of Fine Art in Hagerstown, having been given to the museum by direct descendants of Mrs. Lowndes.

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