Charles Willson Peale, Gunning Bedford’s Portrait Artist

It is fitting that Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of District Judge Gunning Bedford, Jr.’s hangs on a wall in a courtroom where patents are a significant portion of the Court’s docket. Peale’s reputation as a portrait artist overshadows the man’s other talents and experiences. During various parts of his life, Charles participated as a soldier in the American Revolution, fashioned clocks, coaches, and watches, performed as a dentist, silversmith and taxidermist. He also became known as an inventor and held numerous patents as did other members of his family.

Peale’s scientific endeavors during the early years of the Republic created an atmosphere that encouraged invention and the growth of patents. For example, in the 1790s Charles held patents for a fireplace and a bridge. In 1805, Peale brought suit against a person who was making a device for tracing silhouettes related to a patent held by John J. Hawkins in which Mr. Peale had an interest. Peale’s son Raphaelle, in 1798 earned a patent for preserving wooden wharves and vessels from worms. Peale also established the American Museum in Philadelphia that not only featured portraits painted by him and by members of his family, but a collection of shells, fossils, minerals and “curiosities” of every species of bird and animal that he could obtain from North and South America as well as some from around the world. Furthermore, the natural museum sponsored technical lectures, including experimental ones, designed to promote scientific knowledge. After his son, Reubens, stopped giving presentations, Thomas P. Jones took over the series before assuming the position of Superintendent of the Patent Office in 1828. Yet another, son, Titian, one of the earliest photographers in the country and a daguerreotype-maker, joined the Patent Office in 1848 as an assistant examiner. Titian eventually became principal examiner, a post which he held until 1873.

One of Peale’s grandsons became an inventor too. George Escol Sellers was the child of Peale’s daughter, Sophonisba, and Coleman Sellers, a prominent Philadelphia manufacturer. George’s paternal grandfather, Nathan Sellers, served the Revolutionary cause against England by answering a request by the Continental Congress for more paper; he invented wire-screens for paper-making. As a nine-year old boy, George and his father traveled in a wagon with the famous inventor Oliver Evans, a trip recounted in detail in his memoirs. He later assisted Thomas P. Jones as an assistant, slide handler and bottle washer during his lectures at the American Museum. George patented his own invention, a furnace fueled by anthracite coal.

 

Sources

Kenneth W. Dobyns, A History of the Early Patent Offices, Patent Office Pony,
pp. 38, 44-5, 71, 75, 80, 110, 122-23, 127, 143, 161, 180 in
www.myoutbox.net
Charles Willson Peale American Painter, 1741-1827, www.artcyclopedia.com
Charles Willson Peale www.dickinson.edu
The Peale Family Papers, www.npg.si.edu/exh/peale