Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
William Birch & Son engraved this view of Congress Hall and New Theatre, which appeared in The City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania North America (1800), the first book of color plates to be produced in the U.S. While Birch and his son Thomas were designing and engraving the images, daughter Penelope was painting still lifes. Library of Congress

William Birch & Son engraved this view of Congress Hall and New Theatre, which appeared in The City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania North America (1800), the first book of color plates to be produced in the U.S. While Birch and his son Thomas were designing and engraving the images, daughter Penelope was painting still lifes. Library of Congress

The Colonial and Revolutionary periods in Philadelphia saw little art production by women outside the home. Not only did the religious and social culture of Philadelphia demand that women make the home and children their primary focus, but also there were no formal schools for instruction in either the fine or applied arts. Apprenticeships with painters, printmakers or sculptors were usually only available to boys. Yet women functioned creatively in other ways in the privacy of their homes. Some women, Quakers in particular, wrote prose and poetry for themselves and for their own social circles, often expressing sentiments about love, the hardships of Colonial life, the presence of the British, and the War of Independence. When women gathered privately, they were often involved in handicraft — embroidery, quilting, shell decoration and embellishing memorial jewelry. How then did Philadelphia women become some of the first to break out of the domestic shell, learn to paint in a professional manner, and begin to display and sell fine art in a male-dominated public arena?

Mary “Polly” Rench Rush sat for this oil-on-canvas portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1786. Polly was painting miniatures for a fee when she met Peale. He noted that she painted for a living only, finding it “very disagreeable to her to stare in the faces of gentlemen.” She gave up the profession after her marriage.

Mary “Polly” Rench Rush sat for this oil-on-canvas portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1786. Polly was painting miniatures for a fee when she met Peale. He noted that she painted for a living only, finding it “very disagreeable to her to stare in the faces of gentlemen.” She gave up the profession after her marriage.
Philadelphia Museum of Art (Promised Gift of McNeil Americana Collection)

In the Colonial period women were expected to be proper ladies, wives, mothers and expert housekeepers. The primacy of these roles precluded creative leisure time outside the home. In addition, ethnic, religious and racial communities had varying degrees of encouragement and respect for creativity and the arts. For example, Quakers had strong convictions of tolerance and education for all, but they frowned upon public dance, music, drama and painting. Some women in desperate financial circumstances, often widows, found ways to use their creativity to make a living. Sculptor Patience Wright (1725–86), seamstress Betsy Ross (1752–1836), and actress Ann Brunton Merry (1769–1808) did not rely on men for job creation or financial support. Though self-taught, they became expert at their crafts and can be considered the forerunners of the first professional women artists in Philadelphia.

One of the first documented women who painted portraits to help support her family was Mary “Polly” Rench, later Mrs. Jacob Rush (c.1745-1806). It is unknown how she received her earliest instruction, but she was already painting miniatures for a fee when she met Charles Willson Peale (1741–1837), one of the city’s best-known portrait painters, who promised to give her lessons. “After her marriage, she could never be prevailed on to paint a single picture,” Peale recalled many years later. “She often told me that she only followed the profession of painting to obtain a living, that it was very disagreeable to her to stare in the faces of gentlemen as she thought it savoured of impudence . . . to paint ladies portraits was more agreeable to her feelings.” Peale’s commentary on Polly confirms the presence of working women painters in this period yet elucidates the discomfort and social stigma attached to their labors.

Another painter with connections to Peale was Letitia “Hetty” Sage Benbridge (d. 1777). Like Rench, she appears in his memoirs as a student: “Mr. Benbridge painted a number of Portraits, and he married a Miss Letticia Sage, who had acquired some knowledge of miniature painting from her friend Peale.” As of this writing, there are no known signed miniatures by Hetty in public collections, though perhaps some exist in private hands. She may have achieved greater exposure and accomplishment in Philadelphia had she not been whisked away to Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1770s by her husband, Philadelphia portrait painter Henry Benbridge (1743–1812). Her arrival there was announced in the newspaper, which described her as “a very ingenious Miniature Paintress.” She may have had some measure of success owing to oral legend and attributed portraits, but because of the lack of signed works and other documentation, motherhood, and a possible early death, she faded into oblivion. The documentation of Benbridge and Rench provides an awareness and appreciation of Colonial women in Philadelphia who were making a name for themselves as artists before they married. Along with Henrietta Johnston, who was foreign-born, and Mary Roberts of Charlestown, South Carolina, they were possibly the earliest professional women painters in the English colonies.

Ellen and James Sharples moved from England to the United States in 1794. James made a career of painting portraits of prominent individuals, primarily in New York and Philadelphia. Demand was so great that Ellen made copies of the originals, such as this pastel profile of George Washington (1796–97).

Ellen and James Sharples moved from England to the United States in 1794. James made a career of painting portraits of prominent individuals, primarily in New York and Philadelphia. Demand was so great that Ellen made copies of the originals, such as this pastel profile of George Washington (1796–97).
©National Portrait Gallery, London

When Philadelphia was the capital of the United States from 1790 to 1800, it drew prominent citizens from around the country and Europe. Commissioned and noncommissioned painting and sculpture of noteworthy politicians, patriots and citizens abounded in the realm of fine arts. This environment beckoned to British portraitist James Sharples (1751–1811) and his wife Ellen (1769–1849), whom he had trained in painting. At first itinerants, they travelled the East Coast by caravan, enduring hardship and financial difficulties. During this period, Ellen thought hard about pursuing her artistic practice for income. In her diary, she recorded her decision: “Soon after our arrival in Philadelphia where Congress then assembled, to make my drawing which had been learnt and practiced as an ornamental art for amusement, available to a useful purpose. Copies [of James’ pastel and crayon portraits] were frequently required; these I undertook and was so far successful as to have as many commissions as I could execute; they were thought equal to the originals, price the same.” Among her subjects were Alexander Hamilton, George and Martha Washington, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Had Ellen exhibited in the newly formed exhibition venues, she would have been a leading light for female artists in Philadelphia, but after her husband’s death in 1811, she returned to England.

With the founding of the Columbianum in 1794, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in 1805, and the Society of Artists in 1810, Philadelphia artists had their first opportunities to exhibit in the public sphere. The Columbianum, the first society for the promotion of fine arts, comprised an association of 30 professional and amateur artists. In 1795 they sponsored a single exhibition in Independence Hall of contemporary artists, including Jeremiah Paul, Charles Willson Peale, James Peale, Robert Field, Robert Edge Pine, Henry Benbridge, Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley. Among the names of these luminaries in the exhibition catalog, there is an entry for “Miss Birch. Frame of Natural History, in imitation of a Nosegay.” This listing refers to Priscilla “Penelope” Birch (b. 1776) who is sandwiched between her father, painter and engraver William Birch (1755–1834), and her brother, “Master [Thomas] Birch” (1779–1851), all newly arrived from England. This is the earliest documented circumstance known in Philadelphia of a woman having the agency to exhibit. She eventually raised her own profile as a still life painter, exhibiting from 1812 to 1840 with the Artist’s Fund Society, the Society of Artists and PAFA. It is no coincidence that her brother Thomas was heavily involved at PAFA, exhibiting regularly from 1811 and helping to manage the museum from 1812 to 1817. It is also significant, yet not surprising, that she was British-born.

The Columbianum, the first society for the promotion of fine arts in America, sponsored a single exhibition of contemporary artists in Independence Hall in 1795. Exhibiting among the male luminaries, including her father and brother, was Miss Penelope Birch, newly arrived from England.

The Columbianum, the first society for the promotion of fine arts in America, sponsored a single exhibition of contemporary artists in Independence Hall in 1795. Exhibiting among the male luminaries, including her father and brother, was Miss Penelope Birch, newly arrived from England.

Most American-born women in the Quaker city lacked the training, encouragement or motivation to exhibit in such a venue among stellar male artists. An exception may be number 41 in the Columbianum catalog, an “Alegorical picture in Crayons, by a Lady of Philadelphia.” Could this have been a born-and-bred Philadelphian? Two inferences may be drawn from this brief entry. “Lady” implies refinement and respectability, yet her name is absent. Either she did not wish to use her name because of some social dishonor or she preferred to remain anonymous for personal reasons. The fact that she worked in crayon suggests that she attended a drawing academy for amateurs. Regardless of their different backgrounds, however, the “Lady” and Penelope Birch set precedents and must have been inspirational to young women with artistic ambition.

At the time of the Columbianum, there were no formal art schools in Philadelphia for the training of professional artists, male or female. Drawing academies for young ladies or gentlemen did exist but were intended for amateurs or those seeking cultural refinement. Those wanting to study art could learn from manuals, prints and works in private collections, if they had access. But not all art was accessible, favored or deemed appropriate for the public, especially women. For example, although a cast of the seminude Venus de’ Medici had existed in Philadelphia since 1783, it was kept from public exhibition for some time. In 1807 PAFA opened a building with a small collection of antique casts, many of them nude or seminude, to be used as a basis for serious art instruction or connoisseurship. Although the statues were primarily intended for male viewership, one day a week was set aside as “Ladies Day” for women who did not want to view nudity in the company of men. PAFA’s “Ladies Day” was not formal instruction but was the first such unrestricted learning opportunity, and it was readily embraced. Further opportunities for more formal study at PAFA came decades later, as it did in other cities.

Through ambition, family connections, and a market demand for portrait miniatures, Anna Claypoole Peale was able to become a successful professional painter in Philadelphia. She was trained by her father James Peale, who painted this watercolor-on-ivory miniature portrait of Anna in 1812.

Through ambition, family connections, and a market demand for portrait miniatures, Anna Claypoole Peale was able to become a successful professional painter in Philadelphia. She was trained by her father James Peale, who painted this watercolor-on-ivory miniature portrait of Anna in 1812.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Fletcher Fund, 1938)

One avenue to professional artistic success was to be born or marry into a family of professional artists who could nurture, encourage, teach and find patrons for their daughters, sisters or wives. Philadelphia was rich with such families over the course of the 19th century: the Peales, the Sullys, the Leslies, the Sartains, the Eakinses and the Morans. It is possible that no other American city produced as many artistic dynasties. Many of these women started out as copyists of their male mentors but eventually made original artwork that sold in the marketplace. By contrast, Jane Stuart (1812–88) of Newport, Rhode Island, was refused art instruction by her famous father, portrait painter Gilbert Stuart, and she was mostly consigned to producing copies of his coveted work throughout her life. The continuation of artistic tradition and close family bonds were factors that would make Philadelphia women frontrunners in the field.

The first and most prolific among artist families were the Peales. An exceptionally liberal and enlightened family by many standards, they generated a confluence of circumstances that produced three generations of women artists. Starting in the 19th century, nine of them exhibited at PAFA through the years: Maria Peale (1787–1866), Anna Claypoole Peale (1791–1878), Margaretta Angelica Peale (1795–1882), Rosalba Carriera Peale (1799–1874), Sarah Miriam Peale (1800–85), Harriet Cany Peale (1800–69), Mary Jane Simes (1807–92), Anna Peale Sellers (1824–1905) and Rebecca Burd Peale Patterson (1881–1952). No other family in America at the time had the same distinction. Some of these women made enough income through their art to help support their families. Other Peale women like Mary Jane Peale (1827–1902), who received instruction from her uncle and cousins, painted for her own pleasure and later taught her elderly father how to paint, while simultaneously focusing on domestic life.

Anna Claypoole Peale is an outstanding example of how family connections and training, along with professional ambition and a market for portrait miniatures, propelled a young Philadelphia woman to success. Her father James (1749–1831) was trained in miniature painting by his renowned older brother Charles Willson Peale. James had a close, nurturing relationship with his children, all of whom he trained in painting.

 

Left, Anna Claypoole Peale painted this watercolor-on-ivory miniature of Gen. Andrew Jackson in 1819, when she accompanied her uncle Charles to Washington, D.C., where they were privileged to paint many notable politicians and military leaders. The exhibition of these miniatures at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1819 catapulted her from under the shadow of her father and uncle. Yale University Art Gallery

Left, Anna Claypoole Peale painted this watercolor-on-ivory miniature of Gen. Andrew Jackson in 1819, when she accompanied her uncle Charles to Washington, D.C., where they were privileged to paint many notable politicians and military leaders. The exhibition of these miniatures at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1819 catapulted her from under the shadow of her father and uncle. Yale University Art Gallery
Middle, This 1821 watercolor-on-ivory miniature portrait of Eleanor Britton by Anna Claypoole Peale was probably painted on commission shortly before the subject married William Musgrave in Philadelphia. Prior to the advent of photography, lovers would exchange miniature portraits of each other and wear them close to the body. Yale University Art Gallery
Right, This elegant watercolor-on-ivory miniature painted by Anna Claypoole Peale in 1832 and titled Portrait of a Gentleman was placed inside a locket and may have been worn as jewelry. Anna signed this work “Mrs. Staughton,” though she was widowed within a year of her marriage in 1829. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Rogers Fund, 1927)

Anna’s life and rise to professional fame has been well documented in a number of essays. She was the first American woman to exhibit miniatures in a public venue at PAFA in 1812, preceding miniaturist Ann Hall (1792–1863) of Connecticut by three years and Sarah Goodridge (1788–1853) of Boston by 15 years. How was this young woman able to break free from the mold of middle-class expectations of respectability? Probable factors in her motivation included continuing the family tradition, the fact that miniature painting was morally and socially acceptable, and the thriving market for miniatures from the newly wealthy merchant class. Her earliest sitters were local and were arranged by her father or her uncle Charles. Charles’ encouragement, their travels together, and his help in procurement of commissions for Anna have been well documented in his letters. One especially career-changing opportunity came in 1818, when Charles invited Anna to accompany him to Washington, where they would both make portraits of President James Monroe. With this sitting and those of other political leaders, Anna’s course was set. By April 1819 she wrote that she had so much work she didn’t know what to do. Nevertheless, she exhibited portrait miniatures at the 1819 PAFA show, where they would attract attention and establish her as the leading female miniaturist in Philadelphia. This public assertion of talent catapulted her from under the shadow of her father and uncle. She raised the bar for women, painting more than 150 miniatures for considerably high prices.

Sarah Miriam Peale concentrated on full-scale oil portraiture, which she learned from her father. This c. 1818 self-portrait was painted when she was just 18 years of age and displays an uncommon freshness and informality. Her long successful professional career was just beginning.

Sarah Miriam Peale concentrated on full-scale oil portraiture, which she learned from her father. This c. 1818 self-portrait was painted when she was just 18 years of age and displays an uncommon freshness and informality. Her long successful professional career was just beginning.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Did the fact that Anna delayed marriage until the age of 38 allow for greater focus and success? She may have been a catalyst for a shifting paradigm of women artists in Philadelphia as she surely was an influence on her younger sisters, cousins and nieces, some of whom she instructed. Her contributions to the history of women’s art and to miniature painting in Philadelphia were prodigious and she received recognition for those twin triumphs with the exhibition of her miniatures at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876.

Sarah Miriam Peale, Anna’s younger sister, may be considered the most ambitious, independent and professional of all the Peale women artists. Like Anna, she learned from her father and assisted him in his oils, painting lace and other details. She also learned from her uncle Charles and her cousin Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860).

Sarah began exhibiting paintings at PAFA in 1817. Whether she visited the sculpture galleries at PAFA is unknown, but she and Anna boldly attended anatomy lectures at Pennsylvania Hospital, indicating their serious interest in the human figure. The sisters took a step towards autonomy by traveling together between Philadelphia and Baltimore, where they experimented with collaborative sittings of public figures (the connections were originally made by their uncle). While Anna made miniatures, Sarah created full-scale oils that were shown in PAFA exhibitions in the 1820s. Sarah’s ambition led her to solicit and receive a portrait commission from the Marquis de Lafayette, who visited Washington in 1824.

The path to professionalism apparently didn’t include marriage. Sarah’s cousin had once remarked that “Sally is as usual breaking all the beaus hearts & wont have any of them.” In a radical move for a woman at the time, she relocated alone in 1825 to Baltimore and later in 1847 to St. Louis, Missouri, where she was successful by critical, popular and financial standards. But it was Philadelphia that had nurtured her, and in 1878 at age 78, she returned to live with her sisters. By that time women artists were well on the road to achieving status, self-esteem and financial independence.

Sarah Peale made a living from portraits that displayed affluent or prominent individuals in formal pose and attire, such as this one of Anna Maria Smyth painted in 1821. The style here is derived from French Neoclassicism, which she learned from her cousin Rembrandt Peale.

Sarah Peale made a living from portraits that displayed affluent or prominent individuals in formal pose and attire, such as this one of Anna Maria Smyth painted in 1821. The style here is derived from French Neoclassicism, which she learned from her cousin Rembrandt Peale.
Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia (Gift of Mrs. John Fredercik Lewis, The John Fredercik Lewis Memorial Collection)

Anna, Maria and Margaretta Peale were among six American and four European women to exhibit paintings at the first annual PAFA exhibition in 1811. The fact that they were included among the most celebrated artists was an honor and a great cultural leap forward. The next year they were joined by more women: Penelope Birch Barnes, Martha Eddowes (b.1789) and Eliza Leslie (1787–1858). There is no further exhibition record for the English-born Eddowes, suggesting that she immersed herself in domestic life after her marriage to Charles Shippen in 1818. Nor did Leslie exhibit again; instead she made a career in writing and publishing, though her brother and sister became successful professional artists who exhibited regularly at PAFA. Birch Barnes continued to exhibit after her marriage, possibly because of the support of her father and brother who were achieving renown in Philadelphia for their paintings and prints of the city. A clue to the professional status of these first exhibitors is the fact that they are listed in the catalog by location in galleries, but not listed in the index of artists at the end. This would suggest that although they were “allowed” to exhibit, they were not considered professionals or on a par with male artists.

In 1824 Anna and Sarah Peale were the first women to be elected Academicians of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. This places them ahead of their counterparts elsewhere; for example, Ann Hall of Connecticut was not given full membership to the National Academy of Design until 1833. Both sisters were listed independently with their specialties in the Philadelphia Directory in 1828. Although professional, both sisters never abandoned the trappings of femininity, gentility and respectability. The relationship between gender, class and professionalism was a complicated one throughout the 19th century. Anna and Sarah’s recognition as professional artists was only among a small community of admirers and connoisseurs. Though Joseph Hopkinson, the first president of PAFA, had advocated that “products of female genius should decorate the walls,” he was referring to a refined, leisure class of women. Philadelphia was still comprised of small communities of diverse people who were often disconnected culturally from one another. In the broader population, women who earned income from theater, music, fine arts or crafts outside the home were still morally suspect and ill-regarded, unless dire financial straits dictated such work.

 

Margaretta Angelica Peale painted and exhibited still life pictures, which were popular in mid-19th-century America. Although she took stylistic cues from her father and cousin Raphaelle Peale, she nevertheless selected different fruits, like strawberries, and presented them in a stark and simple manner. Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia (Source Unknown)

Margaretta Angelica Peale painted and exhibited still life pictures, which were popular in mid-19th-century America. Although she took stylistic cues from her father and cousin Raphaelle Peale, she nevertheless selected different fruits, like strawberries, and presented them in a stark and simple manner. Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia (Source Unknown)

 

Another example of patrilineal encouragement in the arts can be seen in the family of renowned portrait painter Thomas Sully (1783–1872). Perhaps inspired by the Peales, he trained daughters Blanche, Ellen, Rosalie and Jane to become painters. Jane Cooper Sully Darley (1807–77) also had the additional artistic comradeship of her husband William Henry W. Darley, a prominent music teacher in Philadelphia and the older brother of the illustrator F. O. C. Darley. Jane was quite productive as a copyist of her father’s highly sought-after portraits of George Washington, but she also obtained numerous independent commissions for oil portraits, such as Clementia Somers (1825) and Henry Toland (1830), both in the collection of PAFA, where she exhibited between 1825 and 1869. In 1831 Jane was elected a PAFA Academician. By 1834 William Dunlap mentioned her as an “artist of merit” in his History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, a citation rarely given to women at the time.

 

Jane Cooper Sully Darley was productive as a copyist of her father’s highly sought-after portraits of George Washington, but she also obtained numerous independent commissions from upwardly mobile families. These Philadelphia children, Clementia Somers (c. 1825) and Henry Toland (1830), were portrayed as innocent and ideal, unspoiled by the corruptions of worldly life. Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia (Somers, Bequest of Harriet P. Smith; Toland, Gift of Washington S. Toland)

Jane Cooper Sully Darley was productive as a copyist of her father’s highly sought-after portraits of George Washington, but she also obtained numerous independent commissions from upwardly mobile families. These Philadelphia children, Clementia Somers (c. 1825) and Henry Toland (1830), were portrayed as innocent and ideal, unspoiled by the corruptions of worldly life. Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia (Somers, Bequest of Harriet P. Smith; Toland, Gift of Washington S. Toland)

As with any history, that which is undocumented probably exceeds that which is known. We can trace the appearance of women’s artwork in exhibitions and private collections and find their names in a few memoirs, exhibition catalogs and biographies. It is difficult if not impossible, however, to know the numbers of women who worked underground in creative capacities or who signed their work with initials only. The few who rose to the top in the Early Federal period had the encouragement and mentorship of male relatives or husbands. They also lived in a city such as Philadelphia that had a venue and patrons to showcase their work. These few trailblazers opened the gates for countless numbers of promising young women who would go on to study in Philadelphia art academies and design schools in the mid-19th century. Some of them, like Mary Cassatt and Cecilia Beaux, achieved international recognition for their painting. Only two generations after the reluctant “lady” artist exhibited, these women proudly and unabashedly claimed their victories among their male counterparts.

 

Hidden within this grand and symbolic painting of familial love and fidelity is a successful woman artist. Mother and Son was painted by renowned Philadelphia portraitist Thomas Sully, who had trained his daughters to become painters. By 1840 Jane Cooper Sully Darley, pictured here with son Alfred, had been exhibiting for 15 years.

Hidden within this grand and symbolic painting of familial love and fidelity is a successful woman artist. Mother and Son was painted by renowned Philadelphia portraitist Thomas Sully, who had trained his daughters to become painters. By 1840 Jane Cooper Sully Darley, pictured here with son Alfred, had been exhibiting for 15 years.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Bequest of Francis T. Sully Darley, 1914)

 

Cynthia Haveson Veloric is a published art historian, lecturer and research assistant in the American Art Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.