Sarah Peale (1800-1885)

Self-portrait of Sarah Peale
Self-portrait of Sarah Peale, 1818

Sarah Miriam Peale was born on May 19, 1800 in Philadelphia, the daughter of Mary and James Peale, a famous early American artist.  Painting was very important to both her maternal and paternal family, including her older sister, Anna Claypoole Peale.  Sarah, who was called Sally, started painting during her early childhood. 

When she was eighteen, she drew a self-portrait, which was a tradition in the family.  If the portrait was successfully done, the tradition was that her family would consider her as an artist instead of a student.  She would also become an assistant in her father’s studio.  Her father wasn’t pleased enough with her self-portrait, so Sarah decided to do something different from the rest of her family. 

In 1818, she moved to Baltimore where she learned more techniques from her cousin Rembrandt Peale.  She studied with him for three years and Rembrandt became an influential person for her early work, along with her and her father and her uncle, Charles Willston Peale.  Also in 1818, she displayed her first full-size portrait at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  Six years later, in 1824, she and her sister Anna became the first two women admitted at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which was America’s most prestigious institute.

In 1831, Peale opened her studio in Baltimore and established herself as one of Baltimore’s most capable portraitists. In a time prior to photography, there was a wide market for painted portraits, and she drew some of the best customers.  For example, in her studios in Baltimore and later in St. Louis, many diplomats, congressmen, and other well-known individuals sought to be drawn by her or to buy her oil paintings.  Some men she painted include Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and -- on his late-life tour of America -- French General Marquis de Lafayette.  It’s been proven that she received more portrait commissions than some famous male painters such as Thomas Sully, John Jarvis, Jacob Eichholtz, and John Vanderlyn. 

She was persuaded to move to St. Louis in 1846 by Senator Trusten Polk and other patrons, where she lived for 30 years.  She returned to Philadelphia in 1877, where she spent the remainder of her life.  She never married and died February 4, 1885.  Not only did Sarah Miriam Peale win numerous awards throughout her life, she was also the most commercially successful female artist in America.  She was able to maintain a career for about sixty years and support herself without marrying, which was almost unheard of in the 1800s.

Taken from Young and Brave: Girls Changing History

Works Cited:

  • Hunter, Harvey Wilbur, and John Mahey.  Miss Sarah Miriam Peale, 1800-1885, Portraits and Still Life.  Baltimore:  The Peale Museum, 1967.
  • King, Joan. Sarah M. Peale: America's First Woman Artist. Branden Books, 1987.
  • "Sarah Miriam Peale." Maryland Art Source. The Baltimore Art Research & Outreach Consortium. <>.