Charles Peale Polk


Polk was a major nonacademic painter who produced more than 150 portraits. Born in Annapolis, Maryland, he was orphaned during the American Revolutionary War andwas raised by his uncle, the noted artist Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), who educated him as a painter. Polk’s artistic career began in Philadelphia about 1785, atthe time of his marriage to Ruth Ellison, but by 1791 he had moved his family to Baltimore. Polk remained there for five years before moving west, to Frederick,Maryland.During the next five years, as an itinerant painter in western Maryland and the northern Shenandoah Valley, Polk developed his mature style. Abandoning academictraditions, his distinctive style emerged, combining a heightened palette and electric highlights with an exaggerated attenuation of the human form. His portraits of Isaac Hite; Eleanor Conway Hite and James Madison Hite; James Madison Sr.; and Eleanor Conway Madison, painted in 1799, are his acknowledged masterpieces,demonstrating his accomplished manner of revealing more about the sitter than merely a physical likeness. Polk usually depicted sitters with objects and in settings tellingabout their family relationships, business dealings, or political beliefs. Isaac Hite’s portrait, for example, declares support of the Republican Party and ThomasJefferson’s candidacy for president by inclusion of a newspaper known for its Republican views.To further reinforce Hite’s political ideals Polk was commissioned to portray Jefferson himself. He arrived at Monticello with a letter of introduction from JamesMadison, Hite’s brother-in-law, and during November 1799 painted a portrait that was to become the source of at least five replicas. Plagued by a shortage of portraitcommissions, Polk relied for income upon the sale of such replicas, not just of Jefferson but also of George Washington, a portrait he derived from images produced byhis uncles Charles Willson Peale and James Peale.Fleeing financial problems and political disagreements, Polk moved to Washington, D.C., in 1801, seeking a government appointment as a clerk in the United StatesTreasury Department. Through 1816 he painted occasional portraits of Washington residents, and also began working in verre egolmisé, a type of reverse paintingwith gold leaf on glass. Notable among his sitters are James Madison and Albert Gallatin, both portraits dating from about 1802 to 1803. Two years after his thirdmarriage, to Ellen Ball Downman, Polk moved with his family to a farm in Richmond County, Virginia, where the artist spent the last two years of his life and probablycontinued to paint, as his estate records included painting supplies.