Some people flock to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa; I made a beeline for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to behold The Artist in His Museum.
Charles Willson Peale’s 1822 self-portrait is considered to be his masterpiece, and I sat before it for a good long time, taking it in in all its glory. Peale lifts a curtain to reveal a glimpse of the Long Room of his museum of art and natural science in Philadelphia. A row of portraits border the walls, which are filled with four rows of cases containing mounted birds displayed before painted backgrounds. A portion of a skeleton is visible behind Peale’s right shoulder, while an artist’s palette and brushes rest on a table before it. Prehistoric bones are prominently placed in the right foreground. A wild turkey is at his feet, pecking at a box of taxidermy tools.
Peale’s gesture and stance are so graceful and elegant, the curve of his calf just like the S-curve that the painter William Hogarth referred to as his “line of beauty.” This balding man may not look like much, but to me, he’s a hero — an accomplished artist and naturalist and a clever entrepreneur who established one of the first museums.
Born in Maryland in 1741, Peale discovered a talent for painting, made his way to Philadelphia in 1775 and started securing commissions to paint life-size, bust-length portraits of notable Revolutionary War-era figures like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Paul Jones, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and William Bartram, a Philadelphia botanist who was a close friend of Peale’s. Peale first displayed the portraits in an addition to his home at Third and Lombard Streets, making the “Gallery of Great Men” the first public picture gallery in the country. By providing biographies of the subject of each portrait in an accompanying catalogue, Peale hoped that visitors to his museum would reflect upon their accomplishments and develop an appreciation for qualities like self-sacrifice and morality that would represent the new United States.
Another room in the gallery housed a show during which pictures of dawn, rainstorms and a Revolutionary War naval battle moved and changed color through lighting, music, dramatic readings and special effects, such as wooden waves that moved mechanically in the foreground, with small pipes inside them sending up sprays of water. To celebrate George Washington’s victory at Yorktown in October 1781, Peale replaced two of his home’s windows with transparent pictures of patriotic subjects that were painted on window-shade cloth been primed with wax and turpentine and lit from behind with candles for a striking effect.
As Peale’s portraits increased, so did his esteem. In 1783, he was hired by the Pennsylvania General Assembly to adorn an arch built on Market Street to commemorate the end of the war with paintings depicting George Washington, symbols of France, and tributes to the Pennsylvania militia. He also developed a way to illuminate the arch and to trigger a fireworks display.
In 1794, Peale moved his museum and his family to the American Philosophical Society’s hall at Fifth and Chestnut Streets, relying on neighborhood boys to carry the smaller items as in a parade. There, he worked on increasing his collection of natural history specimens, minerals, Native American Indian artifacts, fossils and other “Wonderful Works of Nature.” To aid the curious, he arranged his collection according to the classification system developed by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. He also acquired a live menagerie that included grizzly bears, a monkey and an American bald eagle. A pair of golden pheasants came from George Washington, a French angora cat was donated by Benjamin Franklin, and specimens from the Lewis and Clark expedition were contributed by Thomas Jefferson. Peale’s museum hosted natural history lectures, organ recitals, silhouette-cutting and other special programs in the evenings, in keeping with his goal “to instruct the mind and sow the seeds of Virtue” in the new American republic through his “world in miniature.” “Amusement here with Science is combin’d, to please, improve, and cultivate the mind,” a broadside promoting the museum proclaimed.
Peale was fascinated by technology and the improvements it offered. When he wasn’t painting, he was tinkering with stoves, testing false teeth, trying out ceiling fans and gas lamps, and even experimenting with photographic techniques.
In 1802, Peale moved his portraits to a bigger space – the second floor of the Pennsylvania State House. There, he and his sons posed the specimens before painted backdrops that simulated the habitat of each specimen — a new technique that eventually would become known as the habitat diorama. By 1811, the museum included rooms specifically for quadrupeds, marine animals and the reassembled, almost complete skeleton of a mastodon excavated in the Hudson River valley of New York under Peale’s direction in 1801.
Peale’s painting, The Exhumation of the Mastodon, portrays the archaeological site, complete with a contraption Peale had devised to drain water from the excavation pit, which used a rotating chain of buckets that hung over the pit from a wooden tripod, powered by men walking inside a millwheel. The painting also depicts nearly 20 of Peale’s family, including his sons Titian, Linnaeus and Franklin, and his friend, ornithologist Alexander Wilson. The bones collected from the site was shipped home and the remains were reconstructed, with Peale’s son Rembrandt carving wooden duplicates of missing bones. The Peales’ drawings and reconstruction of the mastodon skeleton had great scientific importance, leading the American mammoth to be formally declared as an extinct species. The Peales unveiled the finished project in the American Philosophical Society’s Philosophical Hall on Christmas Eve 1801.
The museum remained at the Pennsylvania State House until Peale’s death in 1827, and then was relocated a few more times until the Peale family sold the collection to Phineas T. Barnum, among others, in 1849. Much of Peale’s natural history specimens were lost in major fires after they were sold; those that survived are now preserved at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and Harvard University.
Peale’s famous portrait collection was auctioned in 1854 and was distributed to several different owners, including the City of Philadelphia, which purchased a group to display in Independence Hall. Today, over 150 of those portraits are on view at the Second Bank of United States.
Peale was also one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, established in 1805 to promote the cultivation of the fine arts in the United States through educating artists using copies of masterworks in sculpture and painting…
as well as collecting and exhibiting art for the general public. Today, the oldest art museum and art school in America is known for its collections of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, including works by William Merritt Chase, Frank Duveneck, Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam and Edmund Tarbell.
Noted artists Thomas Eakins and Cecilia Beaux — both Philadelphia natives — taught at PAFA. Beaux introduced Impressionist painting techniques in her classes, while Eakins emphasized the study of human anatomy by working with live models. Its students include Mary Cassatt and Philadelphia native Maxfield Parrish.
PAFA’s current home is an 1876 Victorian Gothic building designed by the Philadelphia firm of Frank Furness and George Hewitt. Its red-and-black patterned brick exterior is adorned with floral motifs carved in stone and a bas-relief frieze depicting famous artists of the past.
Inside, a deep-blue vaulted ceiling patterned with silver stars, red-veined marble floors, Moorish arcades, gilded accents and purple walls with a gold floral pattern make the interior resemble brilliant jewels. William Wetmore Story’s Semiramis, a marble statue of the Babylonian queen that Story carved while living in Rome in 1873, presides at the top of the staircase, just as it did in its photograph on the cover of the American Automobile Association’s Pennsylvania tour book I took with me to Philadelphia.
For more on Charles Willson Peale, read The Ingenious Mr. Peale: Painter, Patriot, and Man of Science, by Janet Wilson; Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art, by Charles Coleman Sellers; New Perspectives on Charles Willson Peale: A 250th Anniversary Celebration, edited by Lillian B. Miller and David C. Ward; Independence Hall in American Memory, by Charlene Mires; Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution through Painters’ Eyes, by Paul Staiti; and History of the Portrait Collection, Independence National Historical Park, by Doris Devine Fanelli and a catalog of the collection edited by Karie Diethorn. For more on Peale’s exhumation of the mastodon at Barber Farm in New York, click here to see the National Register of Historic Places registration form the site.
For more on the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, click here for a list of PAFA-curated resources on the school, the museum, and its building.