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Sarah Miriam Peale: Meet the First Woman Artist of America

Updated: Apr 26

Sarah Miriam Peale
Self Portrait, Sarah Miriam Peale (On left); Mary Leypold Griffith by Sarah Miriam Peale | Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Smithsonian American Art Museum

In the 1800s, America grew substantially, and nearly everything was challenged and changed. For instance, the US bought the Louisiana Territory from France, and from the period 1800 to 60, there were 17 new states in the country. Millions of immigrants made their homes in the country, and the state got divided into two parts- North and South. During the course of these changes, there were differences between the economies, cultures, and problems of these two regions. Despite the hundreds of disadvantageous events that occurred during this time, the most significant event in the history of art and culture was the arrival of America's first woman artist. Sarah Miriam Peale, the leading portrait painter of Baltimore and St. Louis, was America's first truly professional woman artist. With a successful career of sixty years, she supported herself and broke all the societal norms against her growth. Today in this article, we are reading about the life and artworks of Sarah, revolutionising America's female artistic grounds.

Artist Abstract: Who was Sarah Miriam Peale?

Born in Philadelphia on 19 May 1800, Sarah's father trained her initially. And in 1819, Sarah attended anatomy classes at the College of Physicians, Philadelphia, with her sister Anna. Sarah lived in Baltimore during 1825-46, taking occasional trips to Washington, DC, to paint public figures. She was a member of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1824.


Sarah Miriam Peale


19 May, 1800


4 February, 1885






Portraiture, Still Life

Famous Painting

Charles Lavallen Jessop

Life of the American Artist.

We know much about the family of Peales and even about Female Painting Peales due to their artistic background and the crucial family of America. Before we step into the early career of Sarah, let me tell you that Sarah's uncle, Charles was the leader of a dynasty of Painting Peales, and he named his sons optimistically after great artists- Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian Peale and Sophonisba Anguisciola, Angelica Kauffman, Rosalba Carriera, and Sybilla Miriam Peale. And Charles excelled at the topic of gender equality at that time through his mind-blowing lectures. He sponsored his niece Sarah to initiate paintings by taking her to events in Washington DC, where she charmed everyone with her gracious manners and elegance, also making professional contacts in her later life.

Self-Portrait of Sarah Miriam Peale
Sarah Miriam Peale, Self-portrait, ca. 1818 | Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Coming to her initial life, Sarah's father was a Philadelphia miniaturist and a still-life painter who gave all his children art lessons equally. At the start, according to historian Charles Coleman Sellers' reports, we know that after her father left mixed colours in the room, Sarah, meanwhile used to paint a flirtatious-looking, bright-coloured girl with a head full of curls with red draperies. And through these tricks and unconditional love of family, Sarah put herself a good artist.

In 1825, Sarah left Philadelphia city to move to Baltimore, and there, she painted many portraits of wealthy patrons like Mayor John Montogermy, William Josephs and his entire family, and first Brazilian Charge d'Affaires Jose Sylvestre Rabello, etc. Sarah used to have numerous commissions, but it took some effort for her to receive them. Occasionally, Sarah used to move Washington to paint public figures such as the Marquis de Lafayette, Daniel Webster, Abel P. Upshur, Congressman Henry Wise of Virginia and Senator Thomas. Further, the artist moved to St Louis in 1847 on acceptance of the invitation of some Missouri social and political leaders, including Nathaniel Childs, where she spent her next thirty years. We do not know her life during this period, except that she was warmly welcomed by the thriving community and hosted several artists. In 1860, her portrait of Edward William Johnston won the prize of the first premium at the St Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Association's fair.

However, these portraits for Sarah lasted till 1859, as after this year, she drastically changed her genre to still lifes. And after a few years, she returned to Philadelphia in 1878 and died in 1885, becoming the last member of the second generation of her painting family, Peales.

Now, let me take you to the style of her artwork!

A Brief Look at the Sarah Miriam Peale Paintings.

Talking about the portraits of Sarah, she had firm boundaries with linear lines, minimum shadowing or application of Chiaroscuro. In her paintings, we see fine handling of the details of laces and fabrics with accessories like books, flowers or objects pertinent to the sitter's position. Her rich colours and glazing-translucent portraits had almost oily skin tones, with the presentation of the sitters pleasant and lively, giving them a naturalistic pose.

In the portraits painted during the 1820s and 30s, Sarah used exemplary still lifes and landscape foregrounds with the subjects elegantly costumed. With elaborative patterns, her male subjects often look cheerful, intelligent and dignified.

Still life with Watermelon by Sarah Miriam Peale
Still life with Watermelon by Sarah Miriam Peale | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

In her painting, Charles Lavallen Jessop, Sarah showed the subject charmingly through bright eyes and an innocent smile. The brushstrokes are warm and smooth with utmost contrast. The painting almost looks like a fairy tale or dream. There is an application of low chiaroscuro on the canvas.

Charles Lavallen Jessop Sarah Miriam Peale paintings
Charles Lavallen Jessop by Sarah Miriam Peale | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Another painting, Charlotte Ramsay Robinson, showcases the wedding portrait of Sarah's cousin, with sparkling eyes, lucid curls of hair, a detailed-dress and an innocently happy smile. The use of rich textures and intelligible drapery is another characteristic of this painting.

Charlotte Ramsay Robinson by Sarah Miriam Peale
Charlotte Ramsay Robinson by Sarah Miriam Peale | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

In the Veil of Mystery, there is a use of a transparent veil covering the face of the subject and an extraordinary lace work on it. The expression looks completely naturalistic as if the woman holds her position in a coincidence.

Sarah Miriam Peale artworks Veil of Mystery
View of Mystery by Sarah Miriam Peale | Source: 1st Art Gallery

In one of her still lifes, Cherries, Sarah showed a stylistic form with a loose hand painting influenced by the American Pre-Raphaelites. As can be seen from the artwork, Sarah Miriam Peale composed the piece after seeing the cherries growing outside rather than collecting them artificially.

Cherries by Sarah Miriam Peale
Cherries by Sarah Miriam Peale | Source: Sotheby's

Final Words.

Sarah Miriam Peale was one of the leading artists in America, who was successful in holding her position as a brilliant artist throughout her lifetime. She did not get married just for her career, as people would often call her "married to her art." Sarah is a modern-day inspiration for all of us, regardless of gender to achieve brilliance and patience in our works.


1. American women artists: from early Indian times to the present by Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer.

2. Dictionary of women artists.

3. National Museum of Women in the Arts.

4. Sarah M. Peale: America's first woman artist by King, Joan.

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