CHARLES Willson Peale, the painter, was a creature of his age. He believed -- and then went on to prove -- that nothing was impossible. He was industrious, ingenious, endearingly self-confident. Consider, for example, how he came to art.

He was 21 before he ever saw a painting. He'd had little education; he'd quit school at 13. The year was 1762.Peale, who then was a self-employed saddle-maker in Annapolis, had traveled south to Norfolk to purchase leather for his shop. While visiting a merchant there, he suddenly encountered "several land-scapes and a Portrait," all "miserably done." He was too polite to say so, but he thought he could do better. He knew his harnesses were fine. So were his finger rings and shoe buckles; he had learned silversmithing, too. He also had taught himself, somehow, to make and repair clocks. Why not try his hand at art?

He had never seen an easel. He did not own a brush. It is easy now to smile at his naivete. But one's smiles do not linger. Peale keeps wiping them away.

Within eight years he would be -- after Stuart, after Copley -- the third most skillful portraitist in the Colonies. They had greater talent. Peale had a larger heart.

Something in the man was deeply democratic.He believed in art for everyone. Good government, he knew, does not require kings. Nor does art require genius. Any serious, sober person who dared to put his mind to it could make himself an artist, a scientist, a poet. He named his children after masters, after Titian, after Rembrandt, after Raphael and Rubens, and then taught them to paint. He taught his brother, too. He opened his museums to show the young Republic that nature's world was knowable, that knowledge was a treat. He was a patriotic pedagogue. We all are in his debt.

But never, until now, has Charles Willson Peale been honored with a major one-man show. That unjustified neglect has now been corrected by "Charles Willson Peale and His World," jointly organized by the Amon Carter Museum of Fort Worth, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery, where it will be on view through Jan. 3.

The show has many virtues. Its catalogue -- by Edgar P. Richardson, Brooke Hindle and Lillian B. Miller -- is splendid, but the show, unlike the catalogue, has a nagging flaw. Although it includes many curiosities, it is over-full of portraits.

That does Peale a disservice Calling him a painter is like calling Ben Franklin a diplomat or Thomas Jefferson a politician.

Peale was a revolutionary, a showman, a poor poet, a propagandist, a soldier (he fought with Washington at Princeton), a patriarch (he fathered 17 children), a pyrotechnician (fireworks that he contrived once came close to killing him), a highly skilled museum man (the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of Natural History are both based on his prototypes), a zoo keeper of sorts, a paleontologist (he was the first man to dig up, and show, the skeleton of a mastodon), an experimental farmer, a bridge designer, a self-taught taxidermist -- the list goes on and on. He tinkered all his life.He invented, or perfected, porcelain false teeth, a portable steam bath, "moving pictures" (they were transparencies with lights), a telescopic sight, the "Smoke Eater" (a stove that consumed its own smoke), a bicycle of sorts (it had no brakes or pedals), a silhouette machine, another that allowed busy correspondents to write five letters at a time, a system for gas lighting, a chair which fanned its sitter (and also chased the flies away) and a milk cart which used gimbals to transport its healthful cargo without sloshing it about.

The world was smaller then. Dabbling in everything -- in agriculture, politics, history, ethnology, architecture, propaganda, gun design, bee-keeping or show business -- seemed vastly more productive then than it does today. Peale was of his time.

He was not the only painter of his country or his period to breach the walls we've raised since then between the sciences and art.

In 1766, just four years after he'd first seen those "miserably done" paintings, Peale sailed off to London to study with Benjamin West. He picked a splendid teacher. West, though Pennsylvania-born, had become a major figure in the English art establishment. He had graces, he had skills, he was a deeply friendly man. In time he would become president of the Royal Academy and history painter to the king, but he would never lose his fondness for aspiring young colonials. West helped smooth the edges from the young Gilbert Stuart, and from Robert Fulton (who later would design submarines, canals and, most famously, the steamboat), and from Samuel F. B. Morse (who would come up with the telegraph), and from Charles Willson Peale.

By 1769, when he returned to Annapolis, Peale had mastered many of the fashionable tricks of the portraitist's profession. He could entertain his subjects. He understood the rules of formal composition. He could paint the gleam of pearls, and shining crinkly satin, and see-through lace, and silver. His art began to sell.

Though his early portraits tend to be stodgy and conventional, something of the man himself -- his patriotic politics, his close study of nature, his straightforwardness, his honesty -- shines through every one. Peale was not a flatterer. His poses may seem pompous now, but the faces that he painted, even when idealized (he thought faces should be oval) have the look of life. His "Mrs. Thomas Harwood" (1771) manages to be both dignified and sexy. His portrait of "Washington as Colonel of the Virginia Regiment" (1772) has a calmness and grandeur that today appears prophetic. Peale had vowed, in London, that he "would never pull off his hat when the King passed by," and in the props that filled his portraits his politics were plain.

When, in 1770, Peale portrayed his patron, John Beale Boardley of Wye Island, he posed that gentleman beside a statue bearing scales that was meant to represent the justice of Great Britain. To show the viewer how he felt about English law, Peale added, at the statue's base, a bit of American jimson weed, a poisonous plant which, Peale explained, "acts in the most violent manner and causes Death."

It is possible to argue, as Peale's champions do, that he introduced the informal group portrait, the so-called "conversation piece," into the art of the United States. He managed, too, to add democracy to portraiture. "It was always his instinct," Edgar P. Richardson tells us in the catalogue, "to change the old one-to-one relation of the artist to his patron into the artist speaking to his fellow citizens." Peale did his best to paint people he admired -- Washington and Jefferson, Franklin and John Adams -- and in doing so provided us with admiring, but accurate, portraits of the most important worthies of his day.

Though his finest works are moving, well-made and unpretentious, Peale seems more engaging now as a man than as a painter.

In 1776, John Adams sketched the artist in a letter to his wife: "He has Vanity -- loves Finery -- Wears a sword -- gold lace -- speaks French -- is capable of Friendship, and strong Family attachments and natural Affections."

Though catalogues accompany most museum art shows here, this show seems in some ways to accompany its catalogue. That 272-page handsome hard-bound book includes telling anecdotes that bring the man to life.

One comes from John Trumbull.

"Visitors to West's studio were surprised by the sound of hammering in another room. 'Oh,' explained West, 'that is our young countryman, Mr. Peale, who when he is not painting amuses himself repairing my locks and bells.' Charles Leslie remembered that 'Mr. West painted to the last with a palette which Peale had most ingeniously mended for him, after he [West] had thrown it aside as useless. It was a small palette; but he never used any other for his largest pictures.'"

In 1785, the year before Peale opened his museum in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, who'd just returned from Paris, offered him two gifts: a French pamphlet on taxidermy -- and a dead Angora cat. "The trial did not work well, and the cat had to be discarded," writes Brooke Hindle in the catalogue, "but Peale persevered. He seems to have experimented first with turpentine, then moved to arsenic solutions, and, for larger animals, to bichloride of mercury. When he had trouble obtaining glass eyes.. he molded glass in the form of small cups and painted the inside surfaces..." Among the mounted birds on view are a pair of golden pheasants Lafayette obtained from the King of France and presented to George Washington. When the birds died, Washington sent them to Peale. Not all the birds and beasts displayed in Peale's museum were stuffed. He showed a living rattlesnake -- with a magnifying glass built into its cage so one could see its scales. He asked Washington to come and see "a pair of panthers, male and female, of full growth, most terrific animals." Peale also kept a bald eagle. "This Eagle," wrote Peale in his autobiography, "had been so long domesticated that Peale could without fear stroke him with his hand, nay it knew him so well that when Peale was walking in the State House Garden, it would utter cries expressive of its pleasure. Peale stuffed it when it died. It is included in the show.

Peale's museum, in addition to its wildlife, its 4,000 mounted insects, its 700 birds (installed in natural settings in cases Peale had painted), its live snakes, its minerals and its mastodon skeleton, offered objects from all over -- Ojibwa snowshoes, a Fiji headrest, an Algonquin wooden bowl in the shape of a beaver, a 185-pound seashell, a fossilized bird's nest (with fossilized eggs) and a small brocaded shoe made to fit the bound foot of a Chinese lady. Some of these are on display.

Peale also entertained his museum visitors with small jokes. He built a life-sized mannequin, dressed it in an old suit of his clothes and placed it so visitors were fooled into believing it was Charles Willson Peale himself. One of his nicest pictures, "The Staircase Group," a portrait of his sons Raphaelle and Titian Ramsay I, was installed not on the wall, but set into a doorway so that it fooled the eye. At least it fooled George Washington's. When he visited the museum in 1797, he "bowed politely to the painted figures which he afterwards acknowledged he thought were living persons."

Washington had often posed for Peale, and also for Peale's sons. In 1795, Rambrandt Peale, then 17, was aksed to paint the president and Washington agreed. The catalogue informs us that "the elder Peale, wanting to assist his son in his first important commission, made arrangements for the sitting. Peale then joined Rembrandt and Washington in the painting room... in order to maintain a conversation with the president and ease the way for his shy son. Later, other Peales were admitted to the sittings: James Peale, who worked on a miniature, Raphaelle Peale, who took a profile drawing, and the young Titian Ramsay Peale I. The scene of the Peales painting in a circle around the famous man gave rise to Gilbert Stuart's pun that Washington was being 'Pealed all round.'"

Peale, who studied many things, made all he learned accessible, and not only to his family. Among his final paintings was a self-portrait completed in 1822.He gazes boldly at the audience as if observing us with care. When the painting was first shown it was accompanied by a note: "Painted in the 81st year of his age without spectacles." Peale, who died in 1827, kept his clear sight to the last.

"Grease," Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" and "Peter Frampton Comes Alive." In 1979, business slipped; and in an industry that had convinced itself it was recession proof, there followed massive layoffs, roster reductions and cost-cuttings in promotion and advertising. While industry revenues have increased since then, they have yet to cross the $4 billion mark again.

Stan Cornyn, vice president of Warner Record Group, says the industry is going through a transformation similar to one that took place in the late '60s. Among the parallels: "people complaining that radio is derriere garde; big names failing to fill concert halls but alternative clubs being jammed; music sounding amateurish to people who've been around music for a while; small labels finding new ways of doing things. In transitions, it's awkward for everybody."

Other factors have also come into play: shifting demographics (including a dramatic 32 percent decline over 10 years in 14- to 24-year-olds, traditionally the biggest record-buying segment) and inflation, which has catapulted record prices past the point of impulse buying. Says Cornyn, "Home taping is a grievous blow at any time, but particularly in a recession that, with the spectacular exception of Atari, is affecting most industries. The consumer reaction to price is then compounded by the fact that they can get it cheaper if they home-tape it.... If we could significantly lower the price and pick up the difference in volume, we would be glad to. It would be a lot easier to buy cars if they were $1,000 apiece, too, but that can't be sometimes."

The '80s have also marked the rise of the age of video, which has drawn consumer interest and dollars away from audio: video arcades, home video games, home computers, the proliferation of cable systems, some offering up to 200 channels. There's even the heretical thought that video games have supplanted music among America's youngsters, that they want -- and finally have -- their own distinctive cultural play-thing.

THE VIDEO revolution is merely the advance guard of a speed-of-light technological revolution that has both aided and assailed a record industry that was unprepared for it. "It's been a benefit to the industry," Gortikov concedes. "The market was broadened, the capabilities for listening were broadened, but somehow the issue of copyright protection was eroded by the spread of technology. All distribution systems and methods of communicating information [including cable and satellite] are creating problems for those who have to create the program material."

Somewhere down the line, the music industry is going to have to address itself to the changing nature of its medium: record, tape or whatever new hi-tech development lies ahead. Parallels are not hard to find. Radio dominated American home entertainment from the '20s to the '50s; when television came, in radio retrenched, transistorized, became the portable medium television could not be.

Has the record business learned anything from that lesson? Well, while cassettes have become the fastest growing sales area for music (jumping from 7 percent of the market in 1977 to 27 percent in 1981), the quality of pre-programmed tapes has remained well below what home tapers can provide. Everything points to cassettes as the medium of the immediate future: 80 percent of American homes have some sort of tape playback equipment (and 50 percent now have recording capability). The age of records may well be drawing to a close, but the industry clings to that form as obstinately as Detroit clung to big cars.

Ten years ago, when records first replaced movies as America's highest grossing entertainment medium, these battlefields didn't exist. The capability for home taping has existed for three decades, but, says Gortikov, "while it was possible 10 years ago to tape at home, the quality wasn't very high." In fact, in 1971, Gortikov had testified in congressional copyright hearings aimed at commercial piracy and counter-feiting that the industry knew "such practices go on in the home and we realistically recognize that no such enforcement is possible... or intended."

"But it was never dreamed that home taping would escalate to the level it has," Gortikov adds. As American society became increasingly mobile, it was the electronics industry that reacted first, with car stereos and cassette players and in the last few years (after audio components suffered a 16 percent downturn in 1979) with imaginative products that caught the public's ear: portable stereo radio and ultimately the Walkman revolution. It also developed what would become the key to home taping: inexpensive, high-quality, easy-to-operate recording equipment.

Yet while these advances proliferated, the labels continued to use cheap grades of tape. Gradually, premium tape became the best-selling blank tape; people who wanted quality had to provide it themselves.Simple economics plays its hand, too: Having to choose between a $9 low quality tape with 45 minutes of music and a superior quality, 90 minute blank tape for $6 or $7, the average consumer will go blank.

THE ISSUE is not why people home-tape, but whether the law allows it. Consumer surveys show that the most active home-tapers are also the most avid record buyers. But home taping, its opponents argue, still constitutes copyright infringement, or to put it harshly, theft.

The original copyright law handed down in 1917 was directed at restaurants and theaters that featured live music; it made them pay fees for public use of music and eventually also covered the purchase and mechanical reproduction of published compositions. But the 1976 revision only raised the rates; it didn't address itself to signal rights; there is no law currently on the books that specifically deals with the issue of home taping and copyrights. That legislative gap has encouraged home taping, currently enjoyed by 40 million Americans who take it for granted that what they can get for free is within the law.

"You can't go into a store and acquire something for nothing," Cornyn says emphatically. "Every consumer, no matter what he acquires in terms of goods or services, expects to pay for it. Yet when it comes to recordings, something that's intangible, it suddenly seems okay to acquire it and deprive the owners and creators and risk-takers of income."

"Home taping's impact on song-writers, performers, publishers, musicians and record companies is very real," Gortikov has said many times. "It not only diminishes the worth of their contributions -- it is the theft of creative ideas" that ultimately reduces income, jeopardizes jobs and puts financial restraints on new artists, new music, new releases (there were 32 percent fewer new album titles in 1981 than in 1978). And while the damage tends to be restricted to upper-echelon groups -- people tend to tape hits -- the aftereffect filters down, resulting in fewer signings, tighter budgets and so on. And it's not just a pop music problem: Classical labels have demanded that stations not play new recordings in their entirety, particularly when they are listed in program guides.

Hot on the heels of home taping is a related threat, record rentals. Says Gortikov, "We look nervously to the precedent in Japan, where over a 2 1/2-year period the number [of rental stores] grew from zero to 1,500." Rentals, which anyone can see are primarily for the purpose of home taping, have become almost as tense an issue as home taping itself to the industry, which recently formed SAM (Save America's Music) as an umbrella lobbying group representing more than 2 million workers and 1,000 companies involved with music.

THE ONLY remedies available are through legislation, but the record industry has been slow to act. By contrast, the motion-picture industry initiated the Betamax case in 1976 just as VCRs were hitting the market. That case, decided last year in favor of the film industry but currently waiting to be heard by the Supreme Court, will make it clear whether individuals are free of any liability when they tape off the air; if not, then dealers, manufacturers and consumers will have to devise a pool to be distributed among various copyright owners.

The one solution most in keeping with copyright law is to attach a levy or royalty on the raw material (as has happened with jukebox and cable royalties). Such a tax would penalize non-music tapers, but that's the nature of taxation; non-parents pay school taxes.

Another idea under consideration would make radio stations pay for the music they play; like the system in Europe, it would dispense fees collected from radio to singers, musicians, producers and labels. While radio may be both the cheapest and the most effective vehicle of advertising and exposure for the record industry's product, it has long passed the stage of needing the free ride it gets. One reason nothing has been done on this front is the powerful lobby of the National Association of Broadcasters. According to Gortikov, "Everybody wants a free ride from the record industry and they [broadcasters] have been politically successful in convincing Congress that they shouldn't be touched either."

With legislation stalled in the halls of Congress, the record industry has been fighting little battles at the retail level with innovative marketing strategies. Most effective have been the $5.98 midlines, consisting of older product by major artists. With thousands of titles available, some stores' midline sales account for 10 to 20 percent of business against front-line product. The concept now extends to cassettes, including the new WEA Twinpax and CBS Double Play packages, two older albums by a single artist on one tape.

Almost as important has been the developing artist lines, though the numbers here are much smaller. These lines, which list from $4.98 to $7.98 as an incentive for consumer experimentation, have had some successes, the most notable being Columbia's Men At Work (which will be No. 1 next week), A&M's Human League, which went to No. 1, and Arista's Haircut 100 and A Flock of Seagulls (currently in the Top 10).

Weak ideas include the one-sided singles (29 cents wholesale) recently introduced by CBS (which introduced the two-sided disc back in 1908); the cassingle, which lists for $2.98 and goes totally against the idea of convenience; and a CBS plan for the advance release of hot product in tape configuration only (retailers are not too happy about that one). With the soundtrack to "An Officer and a Gentleman," Island recently introduced an idea that's been current in England for a while, the One-Plus-One cassette: The soundtrack is repeated on both sides of the tape, so one side can be used for home taping.

Supertramp has a good idea, but it's the kind of marketing strategy only a supergroup can command: Their new offering, "Famous Last Words," has just come out on BASF's premium chromium dioxide tape... still carrying an $8.98 list. Other albums have been released on premium tape, but usually at a much higher price -- up to $15.98 -- that's insulting to consumers.

Cornyn feels there's "a desperation in the music business, which doesn't know how to read Washington. We're mystified. Congress seems to be more interested in the video side" of the issue. None of this should be seen as government subsidy of the record industry; it is instead government protection of that industry from an industry profiting from another's original programming. And it is the programming that creates the market; without the music, there would be nothing to tape.

The industry needs to retrench its workforce and rethink its priorities: The most immediate of these should be cassettes -- upgrading the quality of the tape, standardizing cassette packaging to make it attractive and worthwhile to consumers, more astute marketing and sale of cassettes.

The obvious parallel is the American auto industry, which clung to big cars and refused to accept the market demand for smaller cars even as compact, fuel-efficient imports were selling like crazy. Detroit was resistant to retooling and then rushed to catch up, resulting in questionable quality. Despite the fact that they still outsell tapes, records are now the weakest link in the audio chain; vinyl, which warps, wears down and loses its quality after only a few plays, has simply reached its physical limits. There's another parallel at work here: not the significant switch from 78s to long-players, but the move from wax cylinders to pressed records at the turn of the century. That was the last sweeping structural change, but another one may be ahead.

ALL OF today's furor could be rendered as obsolete as yesterday's 78s by tomorrow's technology. The last significant audio innovation was 20 years ago when Phillips introduced the compact cassettes that have come to be such a problem. Waiting in the wings: the compact disc systems developed by Phillips, with a playback unit the size of a cassette deck and a 4 1/2-inch, hour-long, distortion-free disc that is not touched but "read" by a miniature laser; like the video-disc, the CD is virtually indestructable and it is capable of digital playback.

The target date for CDs is now March 1983, and models shown at the recent Tokyo audio-expo indicate prices will initially be well over $1,000 for the system and around $20 per disc. If the recession continues, CDs will have a hard time taking off.

Then there are micro-cassettes the size of a thumb, an outgrowth of the Walkman craze, which Gortikov feels will revolutionize the way people acquire their music. On the tape side, one solution would be for the industry to make digital tapes that can't be copied on standard home equipment; it would keep them one step ahead... for a while.

And there's AM stereo, which could mean a renewed liberation of the airwaves similar to the FM revolution in the mid-'60s, which many see as the impetus for the industry's decade-length growth. And finally, there's growth of MTV-like video programming, though there's no reason to think it won't follow radio constraints once it reaches a mass audience.

All in all, the record industry finds itself at several crossroads at once, dodging the traffic of new configurations, trying to stop the illegal trafficking of home taping and record rentals, trying to figure out which way is up.