Charles Willson Peale

Jennifer Lindbeck, Class of ’98, Dickinson College


Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, and was the first of a long line of natural historians and artists. He also became one of the most important painters in the early history of America. Peale’s interest in natural history gradually evolved over the years; during the 1780’s he first conceived of the idea for an American museum of natural history where rare and commonplace specimens of nature could be placed alongside one another, each presented in its natural habitat. It was Dr. Robert Patterson, a good friend of Peale’s, who encouraged him to pursue his idea: Patterson even donated a specimen of a paddlefish, described then as a freshwater “monster” of four or five feet, otherwise known as a Polydon spathula, to be the first specimen for the museum. The museum opened to the public in Philadelphia on July 18, 1786. In October of that same year, the Packet printed an announcement of Peale’s latest plans for the museum: “We hear that Mr. C. W. Peale has acquired the means of preserving birds and animals in their natural form, and that he intends to place in his collection of curiosities every species of birds and animals that he is able to obtain, belonging to North and South America.” Anxious to acquire more specimens for his museum, Peale described the museum’s progress in hopes of expanding his collections:

. . .most by my labours in dissecting and preserving Birds and Beasts. I have, I believe, nearly compleated the class of wild Ducks belonging to this river, ducks & Drakes which I have disposed in various attitudes on artificial ponds, some Birds & Beasts on trees and some Birds suspended as flying. I have not yet been able to get [any] of the large wild Beasts (letter of Dec. 5, 1786).

In 1788, Peale was elected curator of the Philosophical Society’s scientific collections, a position which he held for twenty years. By February, 1790, an announcement which Peale printed in local newspapers signalled the notoriety the natural history museum had begun to receive as Peale continued to collect specimens for display from naturalists, scientists, travelers and farmers from all parts of the globe:

Mr. Peale respectfully informs the Public, that having formed a design to establish a MUSEUM, for a collection, arrangement and preservation of the objects of natural history and things useful and curious, in June 1785 . . . he began to collect subjects, and to preserve and arrange them in Linnaean method . . . the museum having advanced to be an object of attention to some individuals . . . he is there for the more earnestly set on enlarging the collection with a greater variety of birds, beasts, fishes, insects, reptiles, vegetables, minerals, shells, fossils, medals, old coins . . . with sentiments of gratitude, Mr. Peale thanks the friends of the Museum, who have beneficially added to his collection a number of precious curiosities, from many parts of the world; –from Africa, from Indies, from China, from the Islands of the great Pacific Ocean, and from different parts of America.

Some of the specimens which Peale acquired for his museum, he collected in the neighboring countryside and mounted with the assistance of his sons: Rubens, Franklin, Titian II, Rembrandt, and Raphaelle. He also received donations including a pair of pheasants shot and mounted by George Washington; insects, shells, and birds contributed by Mrs. John O’Donnell of Baltimore, collected during hers travels to East India and the Spice Islands of Malucca with her husband, Captain O’Donnell; an antelope skin from Senegal and live sheep from Russia contributed by Elias Hasket Derby; a jackal and mongoose from Thomas Bell collected during his travels to Sumatra and the Coromandel Coast of India; two cougars and a porcupine from William Ferguson; plant life from Judge Beale Bordley of Maryland; and various other specimens of birds, insects, and minerals from Abraham Gevers of Rotterdam and Gustaf von Paykull of Sweden. The earliest large animal to be mounted and put on display in the Peale’s museum was a bison. Lewis and Clark also presented Peale with many specimens, including a prong-horned antelope (the only known specimen of its kind), Lewis’ woodpecker, Clark’s crow, a western tanager and a large California condor. By April of 1799, Peale listed his holdings as including over 100 quadrupeds, 700 birds, 150 amphibians, and thousands of insects, fishes, minerals, and fossils. Peale also began to collect and catalog various specimens of unknown creatures and biological oddities. One of his earliest unidentified specimens was a lizard from Louisiana presented by President Thomas Jefferson. Other strange additions to the museum included black bugs (supposedly “cast up” from a Maryland lady’s stomach), a mummified animal and Egyptian head sent to him by Commodore Charles Stewart, a devilfish captured off the coast of Cape May, a two-headed pig, a root resembling a human face, and a five-legged cow with two tails. Peale’s museum also displayed previously known animals which were the first of their kind to be displayed in America, for example, an ant-eater and a camel-leopard, or giraffe.

In 1801, Peale organized an expedition to exhume the skeleton of a mastodon, then described only as Incognitum, which was put on display on December 24, 1801. George Washington offered his troops and tools to help in the excavation; the site was depicted in a well-known painting by Charles. After acquiring this specimen, Peale urged the Philosophical Society to conduct a comparative study between the skeleton of the mastodon and the skeleton of an elephant. By 1810, the museum had also acquired 21 specimens of the simia or “monkey tribe,” and Peale even had high hopes to one day include actual specimens of Homo sapiens in the museum. He settled, however, for costumed figures of different races of mankind which he made himself. Numerous species of fish, shells, frogs, turtles, lizards, water snakes, cranes ducks, geese, herons, quail, bears, squirrels, leopards, tigers, wild-cats, fox, raccoons, and rabbits filled the museum. Additionally, the museum also had a zoo where live animals such as a grizzly bear could be viewed up close. Jotham Fenton, Dr. Anthony Fothergill, Alexander Humboldt, George Orb, and James Griffiths assisted Peale with the preservation and identification of his specimens. Visitors to the museum included Thomas Cooper, Benjamin Rush (eminent physician and neighbor to Peale), Joel Barlow (poet and close friend), William Barton, Pierre Auguste Adet, Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, and Ebenezer Hazard.

In 1810, Charles retired from his work with the museum, leaving its management and responsibility to his sons: Rembrandt, Raphaelle, Franklin, Rubens, and Titian II. After more than a decade away from his collections, he resumed museum work in 1822 only to pass away on February 22, 1827. Peale’s Guide to the Philadelphia Museum, first printed in 1804, was presented to visitors upon entrance. His Guide, Scientific and Descriptive Catalog, and Introduction to a Course of Lectures on Natural History Delivered in the University of Pennsylvania, list the museum’s collections and record Peale’s ideas on the value of natural history.

During his lifetime, Charles Willson Peale became widely known as a painter, naturalist, inventor, and pioneer museum curator. Peale’s portraits influenced generations of American artists. His collection of birds inspired ornithologists like John James Audubon, Charles Bonaparte, and Alexander Wilson, and his stuffed specimens became the basis for works such as Wilson’s American Ornithology and Godman’s AmericanNatural History. Peale’s remarkable museum was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, as his work fascinated and inspired others to investigate the world of nature.     ~Jennifer Lindbeck, Class of ’98, Dickinson College

C.W. Peale Links:

Disinterment of the Mastodon (1806-08)–from CGFA online gallery

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