Art & Design Magazine

Charles Willson Peale: The Man in Front of the Curtain

By Americanart


Charles Willson Peale, The Artist in His Museum, 1822, oil on canvas, Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Gift of Mrs. Sarah Harrison (The Joseph Harrison Jr. Collection)

Charles Willson Peale, is the poster boy, er...gentleman, for the current exhibition, The Great American Hall of Wonders. In the iconic self-portrait (on a rare loan from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) Peale lifts a plush curtain to reveal his own museum, and greets the visitor with an extended palm at the entrance of the exhibition. "Right this way," the image seems to tell us. But who exactly was C.W. Peale?

The short answer is that Peale was, according to guest curator Claire Perry, "a museum founder, artist, scientist, inventor, and former saddle maker." His museum, which harkened back to the European wunderkammers, or cabinets of wonder, took its cues from the recently formed United States and the ideas of a democratic citizenry. With the country's abundant natural treasures, Peale proposed with his museum that, "a sense of wonder was the heart of the democratic project." His museum was dedicated to art, invention, and the natural sciences.

On the other side of the curtain were specimens of all types of creatures totaling more than ten thousand objects, but one stood out from the pack: the giant mastodon that Peale and his team had unearthed on a farm in New York State (and the subject of another of his famous paintings) and moved to his museum in Philadelphia. The mastodon, known in Peale's day as "The Great Incognitum," was the star of Peale's museum, and served as the site of a dinner in 1802 when Peale and his guests sat within the giant animal's skeleton.

Peale, so taken with the techniques of taxidermy went so far as to think of a way to preserve the founding fathers for future generations. Eventually, he gave up the idea of embalming Franklin and Jefferson, and painted their portraits, instead.

Peale's penchant for invention and honoring the past was also evident in the names he gave to his children, among them: Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphaelle, Titian Ramsey II, Linnaeus, and Franklin.

The Great American Hall of Wonders remains on view on the third floor of American Art through January 8, 2012. Curtain up!

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