Born in the small Central Massachusetts village of Petersham, Robert Peckham lived and worked for most of his life in the nearby village of Westminster, where he became a respected citizen and deacon of the First Congregational Church. His ardent and outspoken anti-slavery views eventually led to serious friction with his church, which excommunicated him in 1850. Peckham moved his family to Worcester but returned to Westminster (and the church) in 1862, when Congress approved President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. He died in Westminster in 1877, at the age of 92.
Like many rural American folk artists who painted portraits in the early years of the 19th century, Peckham began his career painting signs and carriages, but Peckham soared beyond his fellow portraitists to become known as one of the finest folk artists of his century.
He began painting portraits in 1809, and his business was flourishing by the 1830s and 1840s. Few middle class families could have afforded a portrait painted by a fine artist—one trained at an art school in skills such as anatomy, perspective, shading, brushwork, and the mixing of paints. But folk artists like Peckham, who typically had very little, if any, training in portrait painting, could produce an acceptable representation at a lower cost and a plain style that suited the sensibilities of their sitters.
It appears that one of Peckham's sons, Joseph, resided with the Hitchcock family while he prepared fossil illustrations for Edward Hitchcock's 1841 Final Report on the Geology of Massachusetts.