A mystery haunts the biggest show ever mounted of the work of Raphaelle Peale, America's great still-life painter.

What perplexes art historians is how Peale, who was born in 1774, learned to paint fruit, cheese and steak like the Dutch masters of a century or more earlier.There is no evidence that Peale ever saw Dutch paintings, but his work bears an uncanny similarity to them, albeit with an additional glow and color.

"It's a puzzle," said Nicolai Ci-kovsky Jr., curator of American art at the National Gallery of Art where the Peale show opens Sunday.

Linda Bantel, director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, said there were no museums in Peale's native Philadelphia during his youth.

Peale's father - Charles Willson Peale, famous for portraits of George Washington - founded the first museum there in 1794. She said she has no record of early Pennsylvania museums or private collections containing any Dutch paintings.

The elder Peale was his son's only teacher. Charles Peale traveled in Europe, as Raphaelle never did, and painted occasional still lifes.

Charles Willson Peale married three times and had 17 children, including Rembrandt Peale who inherited his father's gift for portraits, Rubens Peale and two Titian Peales, one of whom died young.

All were named for famous painters, as was Raphaelle, whose namesake is spelled Raphael. A daughter was called Angelica Kauffmann Peale after a Swiss portraitist.

The younger Peale generation was encouraged to do portraits. In the days before photography, a good likeness could earn a painter $100. Raphaelle sold some of his still lifes for $15 and accepted services like carpenter's work in exchange for others.

Last December a small painting by Raphaelle Peale sold at an art auction in New York for a record $495,000.

But there was little prestige to painting still lifes in Raphaelle Peale's time.

"A tame, insipid, smooth, flat, mindless imitation of carrots - good God, is this the end of art, is this the use of painting?" asked Robert Hay-don, an English painter.

Peale was a disappointment to his family. He married a woman of whom his father disapproved, fathered six children, drank and disappeared for long periods, leaving his family in poverty. During one period, he appeared to earn more from writing comic verse than from painting.

The show will remain in the nation's capital until Jan. 29. Then it travels to Philadelphia, where it will be seen at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from Feb. 16 through April 16.