Charles Willson Peale painted a number of self-portraits throughout his career, but this work stands as one of the most complex and revealing of the artist’s statements about his art and its close relationship to among such issues as family domesticity, family enterprise, and the educational role of science and art.
Seated in a Windsor-back armchair, the artist turns slightly and directs his gaze toward the viewer. He tilts his palette toward the viewer, and with his right hand dips his brush into the paint appearing on the palette. Without actually gripping the brush, daughter Angelica Kauffmann Peale (1775–1853) playfully appears to guide it with one hand, as her other hand points toward heaven, as if she is playing the allegorical muse of painting. To the left of the artist, Rachel Brewer Peale (1744–1790), the artist’s wife, peers out of the painted canvas with an expression as life-like as those of the artist and daughter. In other words, Peale seems to beg the viewer to consider issues of illusion and reality, and the artist’s magical ability to transform mere pigment (as suggested by the blobs of paint revealed to the viewer on the palette, carefully juxtaposed with the painted canvas) into life (as revealed by the vibrantly alive portrait of his wife on the easel). Such investigations into painting as more than a mimetic enterprise are characteristic of the artist’s most sophisticated works.