Inoculate Before It Is Too Late: Lessons Drawn from Charles Willson Peale’s Rachel Weeping

Age of Revolutions is happy to present its “Art of Revolution” series. You can read through the entire series here as they become available.

By Andrew Wehrman

For portrait painters like Charles Willson Peale, ignoring smallpox was part of the job. His patrons expected him to touch up their likenesses and make it seem as if they had never been affected by the scourge. None of the seventy portraits that Peale painted of George Washington, for example, showed the slightest hint of a smallpox scar despite the fact that he had been “strongly attacked with the small Pox” in Barbados in 1751.[1] The famed British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose studio Peale visited while studying in Great Britain in the 1760s, maintained that painting an exact likeness caused the subject to lose dignity.[2] For Reynolds, a portraitist should be like a poet creating an idealized version of the subject rather than a “mere face-painter” who, like the “mere historian, copies what he sees, and minutely traces every feature.”[3] In the summer of 1776, however, Peale realized that he could no longer paint over the harm that smallpox was causing across America. He used the tragic death of his daughter Margaret and his wife Rachel’s grief to create one of his most revolutionary paintings, Rachel Weeping, which implored Americans to inoculate before it was too late.

Charles Willson Peale, Rachel Weeping or Mrs. Peale Lamenting the Death of Her Child, 1772; enlarged 1776; retouched 1818, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The first three children of Charles Willson Peale and his wife Rachel Brewer Peale had died in infancy. 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.[4] 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.[5] 

Inoculation, or variolation, had been known in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East for generations before Europeans and British colonists learned of it in the early eighteenth century. A precursor to vaccination, inoculation was the direct insertion of pus taken from a smallpox sore into a slight incision on the arm of a healthy person. This process would usually give the patient a mild, survivable case of smallpox. But it still came with some risk. Between one and two percent of inoculated patients developed more severe symptoms and ultimately died from the procedure. Many more suffered scarring from the pocks that appeared on their faces. For most Americans, gaining lifelong immunity to the most feared disease of the age was well worth the risk, and the procedure became increasingly popular in the decade before the American Revolution. However, inoculation was expensive for individuals and difficult to administer to large populations, because doing so required governments to enforce a quarantine of at least three weeks so that they could not spread natural smallpox to others. Ordinary Americans in the decade before the Revolution had begun to demand the inoculations of whole communities, or “general inoculations,” as Boston had done in the spring of 1764. The movement of peoples and armies during the start of the American Revolution made the spread of the disease inevitable, bolstering the need for broad access to inoculation.

Immediately after young Margaret’s death in 1773, Peale painted a funerary portrait of his daughter bound-up in a white burial gown as a private record of a family tragedy, but as smallpox became epidemic during the Revolution and the subject of great public and private debates, Peale re-painted the portrait to include his grieving wife Rachel to give it a powerful call to action.[6] The American Revolution was fought during a smallpox epidemic, and Peale realized along with many other Americans in the spring of 1776 that by failing to inoculate its citizens, independence might not be realized. Because of the threat of smallpox, most members of the Second Continental Congress got inoculated on their arrival in Philadelphia, but Samuel Ward, a popular former governor of Rhode Island, did not. He caught the disease and died in March 1776, and the city held an elaborate funeral procession for him. Around the same time, people in Philadelphia learned that smallpox had broken out among the Continental Army in Canada, dooming their campaign. John Adams, who was also serving in the Continental Congress, wrote that “Our Misfortunes in Canada are enough to melt an Heart of Stone. The Small Pox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians together.”[7]

Understanding that failing to inoculate might doom the American cause, Peale enlarged his funerary portrait of his daughter to include, above the body of Margaret, his wife Rachel with tears rolling down her face. Grief stricken, she looks up to heaven wondering whether the tragedy could have been avoided. Behind her on a table sit two medicine bottles symbolizing the futile attempts made to save her daughter’s life after she was infected. Titling his revised canvas Rachel Weeping, Peale alluded to the Biblical figure of Rachel, mother of Joseph, who wept for her children and refused to be comforted.[8] Contemporaries experiencing the smallpox epidemic would have understood the immediate context as well. Had the Peales inoculated their daughter, she would have lived. Many parents like the Peales delayed or were afraid of the often harrowing procedure, which even if their child survived, as most did, might leave them with unsightly scars. Many more were kept from it by its cost. And in many parts of the Colonies, including the Continental Army itself, inoculation had been made illegal in a futile attempt to stop the spread of the disease by relying on quarantine measures alone. Rachel Weeping implores the viewer to inoculate before it’s too late. Adding to the dramatic message, Peale covered the painting with a green curtain that could be pulled aside for viewing. A sign on the curtain warned, “Before you draw this curtain Consider whether you will affect a Mother or a Father who has lost a child.”[9] 

Among the first to view Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia studio and his newly enlarged painting Rachel Weeping in the summer of 1776 was John Adams. While he was in Philadelphia helping to draft and muster support for the Declaration of Independence, his wife Abigail and children were in Boston joining thousands of others as the whole city shut down for a general inoculation in July 1776. John had been inoculated in Boston in 1764 and supported Abigail’s decision to have herself and their children inoculated. While Abigail and sons John Quincy and Thomas passed through inoculation with relative ease, daughter Nabby and six-year-old Charles struggled. Abigail wrote to John that Nabby could neither sit nor stand, and she had “above a thousand pussels as large as a great green pea.”[10] Although she would likely be scarred for life, Mercy Otis Warren, who visited the Adamses while they inoculated, encouraged Nabby by saying she “will have the smallpox no more,” and that she hoped “Miss Naby will be so formed both by Example and Education, as to stand in Little Need of any External  Accomplishment.”[11] Even after multiple inoculations, however, smallpox symptoms failed to develop at all in Charles by early August. This was a far worse result than that of Nabby. Because he had been exposed to others who were inoculating, his family feared that he would contract the much more dangerous natural smallpox from his mother or his siblings. No doubt feeling helpless from afar, John Adams wrote a letter full of encouragement and anguish on August 20. He cheered Nabby’s news, for a severe case “is much better than to be in doubt,” as with Charles. To Charles he wrote, “Never fear, Charles! You will have it yet and as good a receipt as any of them.” He wished they had come to Philadelphia to inoculate so that he “should not be uneasy” about their situations from a distance.[12]

The following day, Adams went to visit the studio of Charles Willson Peale, perhaps in part to help take his mind off of his suffering children in Boston. Peale showed Adams his unfinished Peale family portrait. “There was a pleasant, a happy Cheerfulness in their Countenances,” Adams remarked, “and a Familiarity in their Airs towards each other.” Adams viewed dozens of works in Peale’s studio including portraits of George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock as well as sketches, sculptures, and miniatures. But he only saw “one moving picture.” Adams could scarcely describe Rachel Weeping to Abigail: “His Wife, all bathed in Tears, with a Child about six months old, laid out, upon her Lap.”[13] John did not trouble Abigail with the details—that the child had died of smallpox. With his own children suffering through inoculation, Rachel Weeping helped put his situation into perspective. Nabby and Charles’ battles with inoculation were far better than the alternative of allowing smallpox to occur naturally. With Washington and the Continental Army suffering heavy losses in New York in late August 1776, Adams wrote to Abigail that “Amidst all my concern for the Army, my dear Charles is continually Present in my Mind.”[14] Soon, however, Abigail was able to report the good news that “all my treasure of children” had passed through inoculation successfully, “and not one of us is wanting.”[15]

While it might have seemed like an individual decision, inoculation during the American Revolution, as it should be today, was understood as a communal goal. John Adams expressed that he hoped public inoculation hospitals would be built “in every county, if not every town” in Massachusetts to protect Americans and stop the epidemic, and whole communities throughout new nation did just that. Similarly, Peale understood that it took concerted government action to ensure that the goal of inoculation was achieved. In displaying Rachel Weeping to the members of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he made it his most overtly political painting. Peale also yearned to participate in the war itself. He served as a captain in the Pennsylvania militia and witnessed the harsh winter at Valley Forge while painting the portraits of Washington’s officers.[16] Washington initially forbade inoculation in the Continental Army, fearing that it would further spread the disease, but in February 1777, he changed his mind and began what historian Elizabeth Fenn called “the first large-scale, state-sponsored immunization campaign in American history.”[17] Washington credited the physicians on his staff for convincing him that such an inoculation order was necessary and achievable, but pressure was building from his own soldiers, his officers, and from Congress who issued their own inoculation order for the military shortly after Washington’s.[18] There was no opposition arguing that such mandates ran counter to the freedoms being fought for in the Revolution. Instead, Americans had become convinced that independence did not matter much without their health and that private pressure combined with public inoculation campaigns offered the best path to liberty—from Great Britain and from smallpox.

With COVID-19 vaccines now available for children ages five and older, Peale’s Rachel Weeping again implores its viewers to inoculate their children during a pandemic. While COVID-19 is certainly not as fatal to individuals as smallpox once was, it has killed nearly six times as many Americans in two years as smallpox is estimated to have killed across the North American continent during the eight years of the Revolutionary War.[19] Further, the vaccines for COVID are far safer than the crude smallpox inoculations available 200 years ago. While eighteenth-century Americans could count on a portrait painter like Peale to hide their inoculation scars, Americans in 2021 can take their #nofilter vaccine selfies with confidence.


Andrew Wehrman is an associate professor of history at Central Michigan University. He is a historian of Colonial and Revolutionary America with a particular interest in the history of medicine and disease. His book The Contagion of Liberty, which argues that debates over public health infected revolutionary politics, will be published by Johns Hopkins University in 2022. You can find him on Twitter @ProfWehrman.

Images:

Charles Willson Peale, The Peale Family, 1773-1809, New York Historical Society.

Further Readings:

Fenn, Elizabeth. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams. New York: Free Press, 2009.

Marks, Arthur S. “Private and Public in The Peale Family: Charles Willson Peale as Pater and Painter.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 156, No. 2 (June 2012): 109-187.

Mutschler, Ben. The Province of Affliction: Illness and the Making of Early New England. University of Chicago Press, 2020.

Staiti, Paul. Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution Through Painters’ Eyes. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016.

Endnotes:

[1] The Papers of George Washington: Diaries, 1:82.

[2] Lillian B. Miller, “In the Shadow of His Father: Rembrandt Peale, Charles Willson Peale, and American Portrait Tradition,” The Pennnsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 110, No. 1 (Jan. 1986), 37-39.

[3]  Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, ed. Robert R. Wark, (New Haven, 1959), 72. Quoted in Brandon Brame Fortune. “Charles Willson Peale’s Portrait Gallery: Persuasion and the Plain Style, Word & Image, vol. 6, No. 4, (Oct.-Dec., 1990), 310.

[4] Charles Willson Peale to John Beale Bordley, July 29, 1772, in The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, vol. 1, ed. Lillian B. Miller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 124-26.

[5] David C. Ward, Charles Willson Peale: Art and Selfhood in the Early Republic, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 137-142.

[6] Edgar P. Richardson, Brooke Hindle, and Lillian B. Miller, Charles Willson Peale and His World, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983), 66.

[7] John Adams to Abigail Adams, June 17, 1776, Butterfield, L.H., ed. Adams Family Correspondence. Vol. 2. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963), 23-24.

[8] Jeremiah 31:15 (KJV)

[9] Edgar P. Richardson, Brooke Hindle, and Lillian B. Miller, Charles Willson Peale and His World, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983), 66.

[10] Abigail Adams to John Adams, August 17, 1776, Adams Family Correspondence, 2:98.

[11] Mercy Otis Warren to Abigail Adams, September 4, 1776, Adams Family Correspondence, 2: 118.

[12]  John Adams to Abigail Adams, August 20, 1776, Adams Family Correspondence, 2: 102.

[13] John Adams to Abigail Adams, August 21, 1776, Adams Family Correspondence, 2: 103-104.

[14] John Adams to Abigail Adams, August 30, 1776, Adams Family Correspondence, 2: 114.

[15] Abigail Adams to John Adams, August 31, 1776, Adams Family Correspondence, 2: 115-117.

[16] David C. Ward, Charles Willson Peale, 71-76. For Peale’s wartime activities see also, Charles Sellers, Charles Willson Peale vol. 1 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1939), 118-231.

[17] Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 260.

[18] To George Washington from the Continental Congress Medical Committee, 13 February 1777, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-08-02-0349

[19] Fenn, 274. Fenn’s “baseline minimal mortality estimate” was 130,658 deaths from smallpox across all of North America from 1775-1782 with the majority of deaths occurring in Mexico and among Native nations west of the Appalachians.

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