Charles Willson Peale is considered the founding father of both American painting and American museums. In the art world, he is most known for his portrait paintings of leading figures of the American Revolution, as well as establishing one of the first American museums. During his career, Peale painted portraits of numerous historic figures, such as James Varnum, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. However, he is probably best known for his portraits of George Washington, producing almost 60 in total.
Within the museum field, Peale created naturalistic environments and painted backdrops for his taxidermy with the aims to create a pleasing view and to capture the character of the living animal in its habitat. Peale also developed his own methods of taxidermy, due to his superior work in handling leather as a saddle-maker (Poliquin, 2012).
Where his museum was concerned, Peale was not a businessman but a student of nature and a universal scholar. From as early as 1792, Peale attempted, without success, to gain institutional support for the acquisition, design and preservation of museum collections. “Although city, state and national governments refused to assume ultimate responsibility for the museum, Peale's Museum became the unofficial repository for the collections of the Lewis and Clark, Pike and Long expeditions” (Schofield, 1989).
By wanting to assist in furthering scientific research, Peale would provide other naturalists and artists with specimens from his collection to study and draw. He saw science and education as disciplines everyone should have the opportunity to learn. Regarding his own motivations, Peale once said that “the gratification which every new object produced in the mind of an enthusiastic man is all powerful” (Shapiro & Kemp, 1990). In an admissions ticket to Peale’s museum in 1826 reads “The Birds and Beasts will teach thee!” (Shapiro & Kemp, 1990). Also on the ticket is nature symbolized by an open book, which guarantees secrets to be revealed by visiting the museum and viewing its contents.
Purpose & Project Design
In this paper I wanted to understand the type of person Charles Willson Peale was, including what he did in life. I knew that he was an artist and also started his own museum, but I wanted to know more. I wanted to research the improvements he made within the museum, then see if these improvements were still being used in museums today. In writing the paper, I wanted to look at Peale almost as if I were conducting a character study. I wanted to explore important events in his life, while observing his demeanor. My purpose was not to look at his behaviors from a psychological viewpoint, but more in a way of learning his character. As part of the in-class activity of the presentation I wanted to introduce a self-portrait of Peale and have the class look for symbols that represent Peale and his work. Since the painting was created by Peale and he includes accomplishments he is proud of, it will give the class an opportunity to reflect on Peale and how influential he was in the progression of museums.
Charles Willson Peale Biography
Charles Willson Peale was born on April 15, 1741 in Queen Annes, Maryland. Charles became an apprentice to a saddle maker in Annapolis when he was twelve years old. Struggling to support his family as a saddler, he added upholstery, harness making, and then watch and clock repair to his business (American Philosophical Society, 1980). He also began to paint and studied under John Hesselius and John Singleton Copley. After several years, Peale began to be recognized as a proficient artist and was given money to study with Benjamin West in London for two years. After his return to the United States, Peale’s work was well-liked and he was commissioned to paint portraits of prominent figures, such as George Washington.
Peale was also an active supporter of the Revolution; he became a soldier for the Philadelphia militia where he fought in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. While serving, he painted several officers and sometimes their wives. Peale also was a member of a Committee of Correspondence, the “Constitutional Society,” and the General Assembly of Pennsylvania (American Philosophical Society, 1980).
Peale was a man of many talents and hobbies and loved to explore new ventures. In 1782 Peale began to exhibit his art in a gallery in his home. He then opened a “Repository for Natural Curiosities,” a science museum that included displays of natural history objects next to his portraits of notable Americans. Peale’s Museum moved into the American Philosophical Society’s building, Philosophical Hall in 1795. There he served as the Society’s curator from 1788 to 1810.
The museum displayed a collection of natural history objects that were arranged in Linnaean taxonomy, a Swedish botanist that was admired by Peale. The collection grew to include a variety of animals and objects such as birds, insects, amphibian animals, fossils, minerals and stones. Peale prepared many of the animals in the exhibition as well as painting the backgrounds of the displays to represent a more natural habitat, a concept he created. In 1801, with assistance from the American Philosophical Society and President Thomas Jefferson, Peale organized an expedition to exhume the bones of a mastodon that was located in upstate New York. The remains were transported to Philadelphia and mounted in the museum (Ruland).
In 1810 Peale retired to a farm in Germantown, Pennsylvania. There he spent his time on technical experiments and gardening. In 1822, Peale finished a self portrait, which has become one of his most famous works of art. At the age of 82, the painting only took him several months to complete. The painting depicts an image of himself in his museum in the Long Room, and is a representation of him as an artist, museum director, naturalist and educator. Just a few months before the museum was scheduled to move into a larger area, Charles Willson Peale died in Philadelphia on February 22, 1827.
Over the course of his life, Charles Willson Peale had been married three times, to Rachel Brewster, Elizabeth de Peyster, and Hannah More. He had eighteen children, eleven children reached adulthood. Three of his sons became artists: Raphaelle Peale, Rembrandt Peale, and Rubens Peale. Two other sons became naturalists: Titian Ramsay Peale and Benjamin Franklin Peale (American Philosophical Society, 1980).
Peale and His Collection
In 1802, Peale expanded his collection into the 100-foot Long Room of the Independence Hall. Peale believed this space was the best place for the United States to open its first “great national museum” (Finkel, 2011). Opposite the windows in the Long Room, four rows of cases were stacked with more than 1,000 birds. Above the cases, stretched a long double row of portraits Peale had painted of famous scientists, explorers and revolutionary heroes. Opposite the wall of birds and portraits were thousands of fossils, shells, rocks, minerals and insects, coins and curiosities. Microscopes were provided for the specimens too small to see with the naked eye. Also in the museum, Peale included the Marine Room, which housed two huge Chama shells, a hammerhead shark, other fish, corals, sponges, amphibia and snakes, both alive and preserved.
Peale’s New Techniques
Peale invented new techniques to preserve and display his specimens in the museum. To give the specimens a more life-like appearance, Peale insect-proofed the skins by immersing them in arsenic and hot water and wrapped them around anatomically correct wooden forms (ExplorePAhistory.com, 2011). He took great care in the handling and preparation of the animals, possibly due to his work with leather as a saddle-maker. “Often he hand-carved the internal limbs for these mounts and even molded the glass eyes” (Shapiro & Kemp, 2011). About fifty of Peale’s mounted birds exist today and are still on display at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Peale placed rocks and vegetation in the display cases to create a more realistic environment of the specimens (ExplorePAhistory.com, 2011). Peale, with the help of his three sons, painted the backgrounds of each case as a representation of the specimen’s natural habitat. Peale admired the work of Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist. To create a more educational aspect of the museum, the displays were then arranged by genus and species according to the principles of the Linnaean systematic classification. The classification Peale used assisted in setting his museum apart from competing museums, in that his specimens were not mysterious oddities but objects of nature.
Are Peale’s Methods Still Used Today?
“Peale envisioned his museum as not only educational, but also a morally uplifting alternative to raucous leisure spaces such as dancing and drinking halls” (Poliquin, 2012). He believed that the museum was a place of rational amusement, of both instruction and entertainment. Peale’s concepts of rational amusement and dioramas have been seen as foundations to the construction and arrangement of all natural history museums, and taxidermy has been a fundamental tool in their public education programs. Taxidermy has made theories of systematic classification, evolution, and ecology visually interesting and engaging.
Habitat dioramas are museum exhibits of stuffed animals set in an imitation of their natural environment. Habitat dioramas give people a chance to view a representation of an animal’s habitat, without having to travel all over the world. Habitat dioramas realistically recreate environment of the specimen and display various regions of the world. These dioramas have been highly popular in museum displays, as it allows visitor to view the specimen not as a separate species, but as a part of a more diverse world.
In modern practices of taxidermy, arsenic is no longer used in preservation of specimens.
Methods have improved but the main concepts are still used: in skinning animals, preserving chemicals are applied or the skin is tanned. The specimen is then mounted on a mannequin made from wood, wool and wire, or a polyurethane form.
The Artist in His Museum
In the painting, Peale explores various aspects of his life: his work as an artist, naturalist, educator and museum director. It shows the artist holding a curtain that separates him from his museum in the Long Room. Peale plays with the convention of grand manner portraiture, where the curtain is included as part of the background of the scene. In grand manner, the subjects do not acknowledge the presence of the curtain. Peale not only knows it is there but pulls back the curtain for the viewer. He also chooses to include the skeleton of the mastodon which is evidence of Peale’s interest in science and nature.
There is more to the story of the mastodon excavation than just furthering science. Before the American Revolution, George Louis LeClerc de Buffon, a French natural historian, believed that “the environment in North America was so impoverished relative to that of the Old World that it could support only a weak and degenerate fauna” (American Philosophical Society, 2006). Peale displayed the mastodon in his museum to counter Buffon’s beliefs. As a native-born American and promoter of the republic, Peale wanted to prove Buffon and similar theories wrong.
Looking back at the painting, Peale chooses to include a stuffed turkey with his taxidermy tools. The incorporation of these objects demonstrates his mastery and skill of the craft. Peale also includes his painting palette and his brushes, symbolizing his greatness as the father of American portraiture. These objects become symbols of his hard work and dedication to the many crafts he worked. By pulling aside the curtain, he is not only showing the viewer his museum, but boasting of his many talents.
Charles Willson Peale: The Artist in His Museum, 1822
Review of Literature
Much is known about the life and work of Charles Willson Peale, due to research that has been written about Peale and his family. It is important to examine these sources as they have been helpful in the creation of this research paper. The main source I used for Peale’s biography was the American Philosophical Society’s online collection of the Peale-Sellers Family papers. The collection represents the interests and careers of the Peale-Sellers family from the 1670s to 1960s. The papers detailed much of Peale’s interests, which gave me more insight on who he was. The papers also included dates and lengthy descriptions of events in his life, where I was able to create a more detailed timeline of his life. I found this collection of papers to be impressive due to its entirety of seven series, divided into 147 volumes. I looked through many of the files, but only covered a small fraction of the whole collection. Using this information, I became confident that I would be able to include a long, but thorough biography of Charles Willson Peale in my paper.
Another source I used for more life history of Peale was Jim Ruland’s biography of Peale. Where it was not as long and detailed as the Peale-Sellers papers were, I was able to add a couple more facts about Peale. I also used Ruland’s biography as a confirmation of the events and dates that had been included in the Peale-Sellers papers.
I looked at Ken Finkel’s blog to learn more information about the Long Room where Peale’s museum was located in Philosophical Hall. I wanted to include a description of the Long Room and its collection in the paper to explore the museum side of Charles Willson Peale. By knowing what he had in his collection and how he arranged it, I began to understand Peale and his fascination with nature. Finkel also included a description of Peale’s self-portrait entitled The Artist in His Museum, which led to my decision of examining the painting as part of my in-class activity in the presentation.
I included Robert Schofield’s article of Peale to examine how he ran his museum. I thought that it was important in understanding Peale not as a businessman, but as a naturalist and educator. When Peale attempted to gain institutional support, he showed that he cared and believed in his museum. Schofield’s description of Peale demonstrated that he was a man who was more interested in the furthering of science and education than about making money. After I read more about Peale and his dedication to his museum, I began to admire him even more.
ExplorePAhistory.com is a great interactive website that allows viewers to explore the Charles Willson Peale Museum. Inside the museum the viewer can click on various items in the museum, such as the display cases or a stuffed animal to learn more about his methods. The section about Peale’s taxidermy was helpful because it included the process he used in preparing an animal for display. In earlier sources I was told he had created a new taxidermic process, but none described it. I also liked knowing Peale’s process so then I could compare it to modern taxidermy practices.
In her website titled Ravishing Beasts: Taxidermy, Rachel Poliquin explores taxidermy, most importantly Peale’s methods of taxidermy, in Natural History Museums. Poliquin describes the new techniques Peale created, as well as mentions Peale’s vision for his museum. Poliquin introduces the term “rational amusement,” and applies it to Peale’s methods. I thought that this source was beneficial to not only learn about Peale’s work with taxidermy, but understand the rationale behind his creation of the museum. I also found information about habitat dioramas, which are modern-day versions of Peale’s display cases.
In the book The Museum: A Reference Guide by Michael Shapiro and Louis Kemp, I found yet another biography of Peale and his interests. They mentioned how motivated Peale was to create a national institution, even though it was never possible. I also found more information of Peale’s techniques in taxidermy, which included him taking the time to mold the glass eyes for the specimens. It was important to Peale for the animals to appear life-like, not only to prove he had a skill with taxidermy, but to instill interest in its viewers.
I used Charles Bryant’s article “How Taxidermy Works” to find current methods used in taxidermy. The article included the history of taxidermy, with a look at modern methods and animals that are typically mounted today. There I learned that the process of taxidermy was in effect until the 1970s. So even though Peale’s methods with arsenic are no longer used, some of his ideas are still incorporated in preserving animals. The article did not focus much on the history of taxidermy, nor did it mention Peale. However, I chose to incorporate its information into the paper because it was still relevant to my questions of research.
I took an American Art History course at Iowa State University in the spring of 2011. Charles Willson Peale was one of the artists I learned about in that course, which was taught by Emily Morgan. After viewing and studying Peale’s self-portrait, I became intrigued in his style and demeanor. The book we used in the course was Framing America by Frances Pohl. In the book Pohl describes a brief biography of Peale’s life, focusing on his experience as an artist. As part of my in-class activity I used the book as well as class notes I had taken during Morgan’s course. These notes also described Peale’s work, especially the self-portrait. I used my notes to describe the symbols and meanings Peale included in the painting. I was pleased that I was able to include the painting and my art history background within my project, as well as use my material from a previous class.
I used the American Philosophical Society’s article about the excavation of the mastodon to expand on the reason Peale was involved with the project. He not only believed in the further of science, but in providing European theorists with evidence that proves America is a land of extraordinary scientific findings and curiosities. I enjoyed reading about Peale’s motivation to the excavation and the excitement it instilled in him. I also liked how scientific findings can not only encourage an interest in science, but an opportunity for debate. Both Peale and Thomas Jefferson believed that America was capable of a greater biodiversity, and sought to prove their theories right.
By completing this character study project, I have learned much about Charles Willson Peale. I knew that he was a man of many talents, especially artistry and museum work. With help from his friends and family, Peale created one of the first successful museums in America. Not only was he a man devoted to his interests, but also his family. He was a loving father, who shared his passions with his children, in hopes that they in turn find something they are passionate about.
Not only did Peale develop new techniques in displays and taxidermy, but he also made museums a place of wonderment and amusement. He displayed passion by devoting decades to his museum. The dedication and effort he put into his museum shows he believed he was making a difference, in society and in the museum field. Even though Peale had his sons take over the running of the museum, it eventually went bankrupt and closed shortly after his death. The fact that the museum could not survive without Peale is a testament to his dedication and love of his museum.
American Philosophical Society. (1980). Peale-sellers family collection, 1686-1963. http://amphilsoc.org/mole/view?docId=ead/Mss.B.P31-ead.xml\
American Philosophical Society. (2006). Peale’s mastodon.