April 15, 2021 marked the 280th birthday of celebrated American artist Charles Willson Peale. His home city of Annapolis helped launch the artist’s career. In 1767 a group of wealthy Annapolis gentlemen, recognizing his talents, sent him to London to study under American ex-pat artist Benjamin West for two and a half years. Although Peale’s career is largely associated with Philadelphia, as he moved there in 1776 with his family, he always remembered his hometown with great fondness. Peale often traveled to Maryland for commissions, including a long stretch between 1788 and 1789, when he created a majority of his Maryland works.
Peale began this portrait of William Goldsborough (1750-1801) in November 1789 and finished on January 12, 1790. The portrait depicts William in a relaxed position in Peale’s typical crisp realistic style. Peale’s portraits often included items that reveal the subject’s character or interests. For example Peale painted a 1789 group portrait of William’s elder brother Robert and his family. It included a classical bust of George Washington, who was much loved by the family. The bust is thought to have been added in 1791 by Peale after the turpeth mineral color he had used for skin tones faded. Yale University Art Gallery has a miniature by James Peale, brother of Charles Willson Peale, depicting either William or his brother Robert.
William had a public career in legislative services in Talbot County, Maryland. His family’s vast landholdings included a plantation called “Myrtle Grove” that ran on enslaved labor. He served in the General Assembly from 1777-1779. William never married and the family referred to him as “Uncle Billy of Haylands.” William kept a journal of activities at Myrtle Grove, mostly notations about farming, but he also recorded family births, deaths, and events. The Chippendale side chair upon which he sits in the portrait was made in 1775 and has been placed below the painting at Hammond-Harwood House. Charlotte Goldsborough Fletcher, former St. John’s College librarian, donated the painting and chair with the specification that they be kept together.
In late June 1824 Peale visited Annapolis one last time to deliver a set of paintings for the Maryland State House. While in Annapolis, he walked the streets of his youth and visited old friends like Jeremiah Chase, who owned the Hammond-Harwood House. During his visit he wrote to Annapolis mayor James Boyle, “I am now leaving the city of Annapolis where I spent my youthful days, perhaps never to see it more! My partiality for the place is very great, and ought to embrace my love of and respect of its inhabitants.”
P79 Donated by Charlotte Fletcher in 2006
By Rachel Lovett, Curator/ Assistant Director