Charles Wilson Peale
Charles Willson Peale, prominent American artist, was born in Chestertown, Maryland in April 15, 1741, the son of Margaret Triggs and Charles Peale, a country schoolmaster. He attended school in Annapolis but, after his father died, he apprenticed himself to a saddler at the age of 13 and took up saddlemaking as a business for some years thereafter.
While visiting Norfolk, Virginia, Peale saw a portrait which made such a strong impression on him that he immediately undertook to learn the art of portraiture. He studied under a German painter for a time (giving him a saddle in payment), then studied painting in Boston under John Singleton Copley. He showed such talent that influential friends funded a sojourn to England, where he became a pupil of Benjamin West in 1770. Returning at last to America, he paid off his various benefactors as promised by painting their portraits, then established himself in business as an artist in Philadelphia.
Peale served fearlessly during the Revolution, taking time from combat and other military duties to paint portraits and landscapes which are today among the nation's historical treasures.
In the summer of 1783, the bones of a large, extinct animal found in Ohio were brought to Peale's studio, and he was commissioned to prepare some drawings of them. It was Peale's first attempt at scientific illustration, and he was fascinated by it. The artifacts remained in his studio for at least a year, and he noticed that they attracted visitors. Colonel Ramsay, a businessman and friend of Peale, commented to him that a better living could be made exhibiting curiosities to the public than exhibiting paintings. The idea struck him as interesting, and he immediately began making plans to develop his own museum of natural history. Like his predecessors during the Renaissance, he wanted "to bring into one view a world in miniature." He was described as being "boyish in the urge to collect and in the joy of it, and at the same time mature in his determination that the collection should be purposeful and coherent."
Peale went public with his plans in 1786 when he published an announcement of his projected museum in a Pennsylvania newspaper. A room in his house was turned over to the purpose, and he began accepting visitors. Peale specialized in clever dioramas, even for some of his minerals. A visitor in 1787 described one as follows:
"His natural curiosities were arranged in a most romantic and amusing manner. There was a mound of earth, considerably raised and covered with green turf, from which a number of trees ascended ... On the other side [of an artificial pond were] a number of large and small rocks of different kinds, collected from different parts of the world, [and] holes dug and earth thrown up to show the different kinds of clay, ochre, coal, marl, etc ... also, various ores and minerals."
A variety of preserved fish, toads, snakes, birds, and wild mammals filled out the large diorama. It was his goal to assemble, among other things, a comprehensive collection of "all minerals in their virgin state."
By 1810, the Museum (now in the spacious Old State House) was at its peak of public popularity and approval from the scientific community. The so-called "Long Room" was 100 feet in length, with portraits and stuffed birds all along one wall, and exhibit cases (of more traditional style than his dioramas) filled with mineral specimens facing them, in the spaces between the windows.
Minerals had become the favorite study of his son, Rubens Peale (1784ó1865). When the weather was good, Rubens and his friends would take off across the countryside with hammers and backpacks in search of minerals and plant specimens.
By 1819 approximately 8,000 mineral and fossil specimens were on exhibit in Peale's museum, a very large number even by today's standards for mineral museums. Among his specimens were the suite of Derbyshire minerals donated by Benjamin Franklin; lead ore, silver, mica and quartz brought back by the Lewis and Clark Expedition and donated by Thomas Jefferson; a collection of European minerals from the Abbe HaŁy in Paris; Maine minerals contributed by William Maclure; many specimens given by various Philadelphia mineralogists; and thousands of others accumulated by donation from every part of the country.
Peale's museum was significant as the first important public museum in the United States where any citizen could go and see minerals. By the time of Peale's death in Philadelphia on February 20, 1827, hardly a person in the country was unaware of his legendary museum.
WILSON, W.E. (1994) The history of mineral collecting 1530-1799. Mineralogical Record, 25 (6), 241 pp.
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