J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 20, 2021

“I wish my wife and children out of the danger”

This is Charles Willson Peale’s painting of his family, now hanging at the New-York Historical Society. Peale is the man standing on the left, holding the artist’s palette in front of his unfinished canvas and looking at what his brothers are sketching at the table.

At the center of the picture sits the artist’s first wife, Rachel, with their fourth baby—the first to survive. At the time the family was living in Annapolis, Maryland.

Prof. Andrew Wehrman was startled to discover what happened to this family soon after Peale started to make this painting, as he wrote in a new essay at the Age of Revolutions:
Their fourth child Margaret brought them so much joy that Peale began painting one of his most famous works, The Peale Family, with Rachel and baby Margaret at the center. Before finishing the painting in the summer of 1772, and just after painting his first portrait of George Washington, Peale traveled to Philadelphia from Maryland in search of subjects to paint in the Colonies’ largest city.

Soon, tragedy struck. Peale read in the newspaper that smallpox had infected Annapolis, but, he wrote in a letter, “I have not heard in what house—(I have my fears) how dreadful the season, I wish my wife and children out of the danger of taking it.”

Neither Rachel nor baby Margaret had been inoculated and both caught the disease. Rachel recovered but Margaret did not. The Peales lost their fourth child, and it would be thirty-five years before Charles Willson could bring himself to revisit and complete The Peale Family.
Wehrman recounts how Peale went on to paint his baby, dressed in its shroud, and his grieving wife as a warning to other parents not to put off inoculation.

John Adams visited the artist’s studio and saw both pictures at a time he knew his wife and children were being inoculated in Boston.

Meanwhile, Gen. Washington was trying to figure out how to balance his soldiers’ demands for smallpox inoculation with the need to maintain army readiness.

Read the whole essay here. And get your booster shots.

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