Skip to main content

Portrait of Chief Justice Thomas McKean and His Son, Thomas McKean, Jr.

Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741–1827) Portrait of Thomas McKean (American, 1734–1817) Portrait of Thomas McKean Jr. (American, 1779–1852)

The paired portraits of Chief Justice Thomas McKean and his wife, Sarah Armitage McKean (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1968-74-2), are based on compositions derived from traditional European portraiture. But through their imagery, Charles Willson Peale expresses a new, post–Revolutionary American reality in which political and familial ideals are blended. Thomas and Sarah moved to Philadelphia from Delaware shortly after their marriage in 1774. With six of Thomas’s children by his deceased first wife, Mary Borden, they established a home at Third and Pine Streets, not far from the impressive town houses of Samuel and Elizabeth Powel and John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader. Thomas and Sarah went on to have five children of their own, two of whom—Thomas McKean, Jr., and Maria Louisa—appear in these portraits.

Chief Justice McKean was born in Pennsylvania but moved to Delaware as a young man to study law. There he became deeply involved in revolutionary politics and represented Delaware in the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and served two full terms as Delaware’s delegate to the Continental Congress (1774–1783). He also was politically active in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where, in 1777, he began his long tenure as chief justice. Two years later, the colony of Pennsylvania elected him governor, an office he held for three consecutive terms. McKean was known for his honesty, impartiality, exceptional abilities, and dedication, as well as for his temper. Politically independent, he was not averse to changing sides in keeping with his convictions and was alternately a Federalist and a supporter of President Thomas Jefferson.

Peale depicts McKean, who had a keen legal mind and worked tirelessly to help establish an independent American judiciary, surrounded by law books. Behind him, a figure of Justice, carrying evenly balanced scales and a sword, stands atop a classical building. The portrait’s creation during 1787, the same year McKean served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention (formed to address problems facing the United States after achieving independence from Great Britain), suggests an identification of this structure with the creation of the new federal government based on many of the political ideals and principles of the ancient Roman republic, and secured by the oversight of Justice.

As members of the Revolutionary generation, the McKeans were committed to their children’s education and believed it to be essential for building a new nation and securing liberty. Thomas Jr. leans against his father and holds a book with the words “Teacher and Student” on its spine. An early supporter of public education, McKean adhered to the ideals of mutual respect, affection, and responsibility among family members and the importance of education for women.

Object Details

We are always open to learning more about our collections and updating the website. Does this record contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? Contact us here.

Please note that this particular artwork might not be on view when you visit. Don’t worry—we have plenty of exhibitions for you to explore.