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Charles Willson Peale, Staircase Group

Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale I) (detail), 1795, by Charles Willson Peale

In 1795 the Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale painted this illusionistic portrait to showcase his artistic skills. At the same time, he wished to represent the roles played by two of his sons at Peale’s Museum, the first American museum created to educate and entertain the public. Temptingly, he painted an image of a ticket to his museum on the bottom stair, as an invite to visit his galleries of art, history, and natural science that would occupy the upper floor of Independence Hall.

Titian Ramsay Peale, who crafted natural history displays, gestures at the top of the stairs as his older brother, Raphaelle, an artist with his palette in hand, strides upward just above a real step attached to the base of the canvas, set within a real doorframe. The realism of this life-size portrait is known to have startled and delighted visitors, reputedly even George Washington, before the Peale Museum’s collection was dismantled and finally sold in 1854. Acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1945, the picture continues to engage and welcome visitors.