Feel Art Again: Charles Willson Peale (part 2)

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'Feel Art Again' usually only appears on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but today is a special exception. In this three-part mini-series, we're looking at Charles Willson Peale's fascinating life and artwork.

Yesterday, we looked at the artist and his family, accompanied by one of his seven self-portraits, painted in 1822. Today, we'll delve into his role as a naturalist, his museum, and his self-portrait, "The Artist in His Museum." And tomorrow, we'll explore his role as an American patriot, accompanied by one of his most well-known paintings, "'George Washington at Princeton."

The Naturalist & His Museum

1. Charles Willson Peale was greatly interested in natural science and history; he organized the first United States scientific expedition in 1801. He later established the Philadelphia Museum, which was the first museum to display North American mammoth bones.

2. In 1822, the museum trustees requested Peale paint a full-length portrait of himself for the museum. The result was the large-scale (103.5x80 inches) "The Artist in His Museum," which Peale produced in just two months. Peale prided himself on painting likenesses with little preparatory work, but for "The Artist in His Museum," he painted two preliminary versions to get the self-portrait just perfect.

3. The detailed painting includes many objects that illustrate America, the museum, and the artist himself. In the foreground are a dead wild turkey, which had been brought back by Peale's son Titian, alongside Peale's taxidermy tools. A mounted bald eagle, which is now one of his few surviving specimens, can also be seen, along with an Allegheny River paddlefish, one of the first donations, which is marked "With this article the Museum commenced, June, 1784." The bones on the floor are from a mastodon; a reconstructed mastodon, the museum's main attraction, is behind the curtain. Filling the receding shelves are animal species organized by Linnaean classification; above them hang portraits (painted by Peale) of revolutionary heroes and notable Americans. Finally, in the background is a child, a representation of posterity benefiting from the museum's lessons in natural history.

4. Acknowledgments sent to museum donors used a similar structure as in "The Artist in His Museum." On the acknowledgments, a curtain marked "Nature" was held back to reveal a landscape with animals. The positioning of Peale in the painting, holding back the curtain, "has the effect of creating a dialectic between life and art, painter and audience, the individual and American culture at large, and finally past and present," according to a critic, David C. Ward. "The figure of Peale bridges these realms... further drawing attention to and heightening the impact of his creativity."

5. While visiting the eastern U.S., Davy Crockett visited Peale's museum and wrote: "...I was taken to Peale's museum. I shall not attempt to describe the curiosities here; it is above my bend." Another visitor, a Marylander named Anne Royall, remarked, "The museum was founded by Mr. Peale in 1784; this indefatigable man has done more since that time, than one would suppose could be done by a whole nation - the collection is endless..."

6. Upon Peale's death, the museum was sold to the showmen P.T. Barnum and Moses Kimball, who split it up. Today, much of the collection is in the Peale Museum in Baltimore. Rembrandt Peale founded the Baltimore museum and designed the building; it is now managed by the Maryland Historical Society.

A larger version of "The Artist in His Museum" is available here.

Don't forget to check back tomorrow for part three!

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

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April 16, 2008 - 3:45am
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