Sarah Miriam Peale’s ‘Portrait of a Woman’ gives a glimpse in time

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we hope that you enjoy this portrait from the collection by one of the first professional women painters in the United States. If you visit the museum, this work is currently on view in the Mason Gallery. The museum has other works by Sarah Miriam Peale in the collection as well, but we are focusing on this one since it is on display.

Portrait of a Woman

Sarah Miriam Peale (American, 1800–1885)
Portrait of a Woman, ca. 1820–24
Oil on canvas
30 × 24 in.
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Museum purchase, Mrs. William Grimm Fund, A1486,67.0008

Portrait of a Woman is typical of Peale’s work, which appealed to the taste of affluent patrons of the 1800s. With her pensive blue eyes and dark brown curls visible under her bonnet, the unknown subject looks out at the viewer directly with poise and confidence. Peale’s choice of color complements her sitter: a black Empire-style dress with shirred upper sleeves and a white lace collar. The woman’s white stole is ornamented with an intricately woven edging of red and green. Accenting both the collar and her bonnet are tiny jewels that reveal the artist’s painstaking technique and acute attention to decorative detail. That we no longer know this lady’s identity points to an irony of portraiture: although made to preserve ourselves (and our legacies), our names can often be lost to history unless they are recorded, but the likeness itself (preserved through art) endures nevertheless.

The last child of painter James Peale (1749–1831), Sarah was trained as an artist by her father and her uncle, renowned portraitist Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827). Born in Philadelphia, she began her artistic career painting still lifes, a typical subject for women artists at the time. Soon, however, she developed skills in portraiture. In 1825, she settled in Baltimore, where she maintained a studio in her cousin Rembrandt Peale’s (1778–1860) museum through 1829. She became one of the most popular portraitists in the region, painting at least one hundred paintings of prominent Baltimore citizens and making several trips to Washington from 1841–43 to paint statesmen, including the Marquis de Lafayette (Gilbert du Motier, 1757–1834), who sat four times for her. In 1847, Peale moved to St. Louis, where she focused on still lifes, and in 1878 returned to Philadelphia to live with her artist-sisters Anna Claypoole Peale (1791–1878) and Margaretta Angelica Peale (1795–1882).

This WeekendArt is sponsored by Dr & Mrs. Robert K. Hobbs