Peale-ing Back American History: the Life of Charles Willson Peale and his Cabinet of Curiosities

In the first fan girl crush blog about Charles Willson Peale, I talked about how Peale created the first American Museum. Today, I’m talking about the rest of his life.

Part of the reason I admire Peale so much is that his attitude about life seemed to be, “I can figure that out.” If he admired a talent or a skill, he would figure out how to acquire that ability himself and work at it until he was at least proficient at the skill. At every turn, he taught what he knew to others, particularly his children. A contemporary of the founding fathers, Peale had the same zest for life and learning that Franklin and Jefferson exhibited. In fact, those three often exchanged correspondence discussing new inventions and sharing ideas on how to improve them. Until the very end of his life, Peale demonstrated this zeal for learning and a desire to share his knowledge with others.

peale8

Charles Willson Peale.

But, let’s go back to the start…

Peale was the son of a British convict who was banished to the colonies. The senior Peale moved to Annapolis and used his considerable smarts to become the headmaster of a prestigious school, where the Peale family lived and the Peale children attended the school for free. This fantastic opportunity meant that young Charles Willson Peale was exposed to many subjects that he wouldn’t normally get to experience, and he soon discovered that he loved drawing and painting, a love that stayed with him his entire life. When the elder Peale died in 1750 at the age of 41 and the family was left destitute and homeless, an old student of elder Peale took the family in. Mrs. Peale became a dress maker to earn some money. Too young to work himself, Charles would help his mother by going to town to sketch the latest styles for her.

At the ripe old age of 13, Charles and his mother decided it was time for him to earn a trade, so he was apprenticed off. The two of them discussed his options and Charles decided on saddlery. Saddlery was smelly and hard but Charles was so industrious that his master gave him extra jobs and he was actually able to save some money. His first big purchase was a pocket watch, but it stopped working almost immediately. He took it in for repair, paid a considerable sum and then the watch stopped again. So he decided to learn how watches work so he could fix it himself. This started his interest in tinkering.

peale10

Portrait of Marquis de Lafayette by Charles Willson Peale.

At 21, after considerable confusion, he was married to his first wife and the love of his life, Rachel. They lived with his mother while he was creating a successful business to compete with his former master. Unfortunately, he chose to establish his new business a little too close to his master, and to show his dissatisfaction, the old master offered to set Peale up in business by making him a loan on tools and leather. The friendly and trusting Peale took him up on his offer, only realizing the bad deal afterwards, which ended up being the cause of considerable financial troubles for years.

While on a trip to Norfolk to buy more supplies, Peale visited a man whose oil paintings were so bad that Peale thought, “I can do better.” He had never actually seen an oil painting before this visit and had nothing to use for comparison. But that didn’t matter. He was now a painter. He immediately came back to Annapolis and painted portraits of Rachel, his brother James and himself. They were so good, he got several commissions. At this point, he added sign-making to his trade using the carriage oil paint.

Rachel Weeping

Charles Willson Peale’s wife Rachel, weeping over their daughter who died of smallpox.

To continue with this new venture, he needed portrait supplies from Philadelphia. When he got to Philadelphia, Peale didn’t know how to actually paint so he couldn’t order pigments and supplies. Instead, he got a price list and said he’d come back. He then got a basic art instruction book (two volumes) from London and read that. With that new knowledge and his price list, he selected his supplies. He still had no practical knowledge, so he traded a saddle for lessons (stretching canvases, sizing a canvas, etc.) from a local artist.

In 1764, Peale joined “The Sons of Freedom” and used his artistic ability to paint their protest signs. Because of this, all the financial troubles he incurred from his original master came back to bite him. The prominent men to whom he owed money were not happy with his involvement with these colonial rabble-rousers, and they were coming for him. It was either flee or rot in jail. So, leaving a very pregnant Rachel at home, he fled to his sisters’ home. From there, he ended up on a schooner that was making a short trip to Boston to deliver corn. Eighteen months and several adventures later, Peale had developed enough skills to stave off his debts and reunite with his beloved Rachel. Shortly thereafter, he had the opportunity to study art in London for the next year.

While in London, Peale popped in on another colonist from Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin. This impromptu visit resulted in a great friendship that would last a lifetime. Upon returning to Pennsylvania, Peale spent the next several years building his reputation and earning commissions as a portrait painter.

peale1

Independence Hall, formerly the Pennsylvania Statehouse, as painted by Charles Willson Peale.

On July 8, 1776, Peale began his military career. He made the short walk from a newly-purchased home in Philadelphia to the statehouse to hear the Declaration of Independence being read. A month later, he joined the militia and was responsible for a group of 81 men. Before heading out to an unknown fate, Peale made the effort to check on the families of each of his 81 men, inquiring about concerns and needs while they would be away fighting. Although he and his men were not at battle long, this concern for his men continued throughout the war and did not go unappreciated by those he led. During the Battle of Princeton, Peale used saddlery skills to make moccasins for those without shoes.

During the war, Peale painted portraits of various important figures. Among them was Gilbert du Motier, know as the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was a key figure in the American Revolution. He was commissioned as a major general and was a friend and trusted advisor to General George Washington. As Lafayette sat for his portrait, he and Peale became friends. This pattern repeated with Washington, Jefferson, Madison and many other familiar names.

Lord Cornwallis was defeated at Yorktown in 1781 which caused everyone to put candles in their windows. A young Frenchman removed two of the sashes in the windows and put up transparent pictures instead. Peale followed suit the next night and all the windows featured portraits of leaders of Yorktown. People came from all over town to see the display, which he changed out several more times. This provided a wider audience than his wealthy patrons and helped those who’d turned their back on Peale for political reasons to notice him again. This also began Peale’s career as a showman.

peale3

Advertisement for Peale’s Museum.

Before, during and after the war, Peale painted portraits of various sizes, and a year after the Battle of Yorktown, Peale added an addition onto his house to hold them all. This was the first public picture gallery in America. The portraits were of the heroes of the revolution. Included in the gallery were full-length portraits of Washington and Gerard to smaller portraits of Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, Thomas Paine, and Robert Morris. He charged no admission fee because he wanted commissions for copies but also because he wanted to inspire his fellow citizens to live up to the highest ideals of a republican form of government.

peale2

Model of Peale’s patented fireplace.

The next few years were busy. First, the portrait gallery transformed into a gallery for moving pictures, and then later became the precursor to the first natural history museum. In 1804, Peale returned to painting again, which led to the founding the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Peale received two patents and subsequently spent a great deal of time copying out the documents for others. To save time, he perfected the polygraph, which allowed the writer to pen two documents at once.

peale4

Peale is credited with patenting improvements to the original polygraph machine, which had nothing to do with truth-telling. A writer would pen a document on one side, and the machine would replicate the hand movements on the other.

In 1810, Peale decided to retire to a farm, and by retire he meant totally re-do. He added a studio, redid the kitchen, planted crops, and repaired the farm tools. Peale was too fond of his livestock to slaughter them. He needed money, so his neighbor suggested currants for wine, which he planted reluctantly because he himself was not a drinker. The wine became the most profitable project at the farm and was highly praised. During this time, Peale and Thomas Jefferson kept up a steady exchange of letters discussing new agricultural methods and equipment. At Monticello, Jefferson invented the moldboard plow and Peale put it into service at Belfield.

While Peale enjoyed tinkering with the farm equipment, he didn’t actually like the farming. In fact, farming may be the only thing at which Peale never truly excelled. Not to worry, however. His son Rubens loved botany, so he applied his artistic eye to this arena and created a lavish garden. The beauty of the gardens attracted flocks of people, so many in fact that the family had to close the gates to keep people from crushing the flowers. Rather than producing crops, Peale produced landscape paintings. In the end, Peale discovered that “retirement was hard on the wallet.” For a number of reasons, Belfield was sold, and Peale returned to Philly to focus on the future of his museum.

A few years later, the Marquis de Lafayette, a Revolutionary War hero, returned to Philadelphia for a visit. The red carpets were rolled out. There was to be a parade and a public gathering, but Peale was not asked to play any role in the visit. While this wounded his pride, he came to cheer in the crowd nonetheless. During the processional parade to the statehouse, however, Lafayette spied Peale in the crowd and immediately left the formal gathering and went to embrace his old friend. He insisted that Peale join him for several of the planned events as his special guest.

As he got older, his children believed that he had obtained a certain position in Philly society and they didn’t want him to jeopardize this. They became extremely nervous when he decided to write his autobiography in his mid-80’s. One of his daughters Sophy would read the installments nightly and would try to censor the more provocative parts. His kids were horrified when Peale put out an announcement in May of 1826 for his newest venture — Porcelain False Teeth, selling for $150 a set.

At the age of 85, Peale decided to find a fourth Mrs. Peale and marry again. A friend recommended an elderly lady who taught at a school for the deaf in New York. After a whirlwind two-week romance, Peale proposed to this lucky lady. The proposal also included an offer to teach her how to make false teeth. Shockingly, neither offer was accepted.

peale7

Peale returned to Philly from this adventure by boat, but it ran aground in stormy weather about a mile from the dock, so he had to walk with his luggage in the rain for quite some distance. When he arrived home, he was exhausted and had “strained his heart.” He became increasingly weak over the next few weeks and died in his bed Feb. 22, 1827.  He was buried in St. Peter’s Churchyard in Philadelphia, just blocks from his beloved museum.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is opening a Peale-like Cabinet of Curiosities next Friday, May 6. Come visit for a taste of the wonder Americans might have felt wandering through Peale’s museum.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+

Beached Galveston Whale Raises Concerns and Curiosities

Back in December, a 44-foot sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis) washed ashore and died on the Galveston coastline near the Terramar subdivision. It was sighted by a passerby who spied it rolling in the waves, its spout the only clear sign that it was alive. A crowd gathered, including a local dolphin rescue group and machinery crews who brought out a front-end loader.

Not much could be done for the whale, unfortunately, since its size prevented advocacy groups and interested citizens from helping it back into the ocean. A frightened whale, rolling in the waves, poses a serious threat of crushing those who wish to help it. Onlookers had no choice but to watch and hope for the best.

sei whale

Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis)

When the whale stopped spouting, a sign it was no longer breathing, crews dragged it ashore so a necropsy, or animal autopsy, could be performed and its species could be identified. After the seven-hour procedure to determine its cause of death, results were inconclusive and remained murky for several weeks. A number of combined factors could have contributed to its becoming stranded. The whale was dragged on shore by front-end loaders and buried in a deep trench near the water table, common practice for any beached cetacean.

“Typically when dolphins are beached, we take them to an off-site location and bury them. This whale was 60,000 pounds, so we buried it at the site where it washed up,” said Mary Beth Bassett, Public Relations Coordinator for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.

whaling

Woodcut of Dutch whalers in the 1800s.

The World Wildlife Fund lists the sei whale as an endangered species, with less than 12,000 individuals estimated to live in today’s oceans. Commercial whalers targeted the species and hunted them heavily when blue and fin whales became scarce, driving their numbers dangerously low. While advocacy groups continue to work to restore the population, the sei whale, and ocean-going whales in general, remain difficult to track and understand, and so must be protected through international whaling laws.

Because whales use echolocation to navigate, sonar from commercial ships might confuse whales, driving them into dangerous situations that lead to beachings, explained Tina Petway, Houston Museum of Natural Science Associate Curator of Malacology. This could have played a factor in the death of this whale, which was also probably ill and its navigational faculties already impaired.

fin whale

Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus)

“Whales frequently have parasites that get in the inner ear and cause them to have echolocation problems and lose their balance easily,” Petway said. “They can be led off their paths when their echolocation doesn’t seem to work.”

Petway theorized that some of these ocean-going whales unused to inshore areas can become “lost” between sandbars. When led astray, they might pass a sandbar and believe they are heading back out to sea when in fact, they are in a trough between sandbars. By this time, they are trapped and the inshore current continues to push them further onto the beach.

Brydes whale

Bryce’s whale, (Balaenoptera brydei) with three distinctive ridges on its head.

“But something was wrong before it got stranded,” Petway said.

The sei whale belongs to a family of fin whales characterized by a small, backward-curving dorsal fin far down their backs. Only four whales have this specific characteristic, the blue whale, the fin whale (its name no surprise), the Bryde’s (pronounced broo-des) whale, and the sei whale. The Bryde’s and the sei are difficult to distinguish from one another. They are almost identical in size and shape, but the Bryde’s has three ridges on the top of its head running from its blowhole to its snout, while the sei whale has only one.

“Almost all species of whales can be found in the Gulf of Mexico,” Petway said. “We have pods of killer whales (orcas) in the Gulf of Mexico. They don’t travel. They are resident pods.”

Baleen

Fin whales all use baleen to catch and filter krill out of large gulps of seawater. They swim through large schools of krill, or copopods, with their mouths open, and push the water through the baleen (which has the appearance of broom bristles hanging from the top of the mouth) with their tongues. Like dust, the baleen catches the krill, which the whale then swallows.

plastic ocean

The growing amount of bits of plastic in the ocean, now so far broken down some of it is microscopic, is a concern for baleen whales. Because the bits of plastic are about the same size as krill, they are filtered out and swallowed with all the rest. Scientists are unsure how this affects whales since they are difficult to study, but it can’t be good. You can help these whales when you observe World Oceans Day June 8 this year by making a pledge to reduce your plastic use and begin recycling. Spread the word and encourage others to do the same. Plastic in the oceans is a serious world emergency. Whales like the sei and other fin whales, which are already endangered, need no more problems threatening their numbers, and plastic affects the entire food chain, including we humans, who also depend on the oceans as a source of food.

You can size yourself up to a complete whale skeleton in HMNS’s newest exhibit, Cabinet of Curiosities, opening Friday, May 6. Personnel are currently restoring the skeleton, which has been in storage for a number of years, and will hang it from the ceiling as part of this hands-on history of wonder.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+

The Adventures of Archie the Traveling T. Rex: Big Bend National Park

by Charlotte Brohi

Well, it’s Archie reporting in….

After my visit to Paris, I thought it high time I went to a place closer to home that has fossil records of some of my friends in the dinosaur world. Can you guess where?

charlotte1

So, I hunkered down in my suitcase for the short flight to Midland, Texas, my jumping-off point for my adventure to the Big Bend National Park. Don’t worry. I brought sun protection (a hat) and extra water because I was planning to hike as well as learn a few things.

charlotte3

You are probably asking, “but Archie, why Big Bend?” To be honest, I was totally inspired to go WILD and visit a national park ever since I saw the new Giant Screen/IMAX film at HMNS called National Park Adventure 3D. That’s me in my 3D glasses below. Spoiler alert: this film showcases 13 of the famous parks and it has better music than what is on my playlist!

Charlotte2

Feeling adventurous, and having learned that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park system I just knew I HAD to go! How often do we get to celebrate a centennial? Do you know who is credited with this monumental feat? If you shouted to yourself, “President Teddy Roosevelt” then you would be correct! Sadly, he lost both his wife and mother on the same day but he credited his time in the wilderness as crucial to his emotional healing and thus inspired him to protect the wilderness. I LOVE being in the wild too, don’t you?

charlotte4

Because I didn’t want to play favorites I also ventured to Big Bend State Park. You can’t tell from this photo, but Big Bend is considered moderate-altitude (between 5,000 and 6,000 feet). I still had to catch my breath and take it slow up the trail. Remember, altitude can negatively affect those who are older and can only use half of their appendages when walking… Like moí! See, I did learn something in Paris.

As I prepared for my hike, I took a look around and remembered that Big Bend has the youngest of all Texas dinosaurs, dating to the end of the Mesozoic, 66 million years ago! I am walking in the footsteps of greatness!

charlotte5

The next day was pretty hot (100 degrees, to be precise) so I decided to stay cool in my traveling suitcase as I pondered the fact that more than 90 dinosaur species, nearly 100 plant species, and more than two dozen fish, frogs, salamanders, turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and even early mammals have been discovered here. But to most of us, it’s just so darn BEAUTIFUL!

charlotte6

And because I’m a good steward of the environment, I didn’t pack anything extra to take home with me. It’s important to preserve all cultural and natural artifacts. So I only took photographs and left only footprints.

charlotte7

Did you know that the Rio Grande River is the international boundary (1,000 miles) between Mexico and the United States, and the “big bend” follows more than 100 miles of that boundary? In fact, the park was named after the area, which has a large bend in the river. I love learning the origins of names. Just like my name, Tyrannosaurus Rex, which comes from Greek and Latin roots that mean “tyrant lizard king.” My friends just call me T. rex, though. Or Archie. It’s less intimidating.

charlotte8

The Stars at Night are Big and Bright…

Once the sun went down, I gazed at more than 2,000 stars. Big Bend has the least light pollution of any other National Park in the lower 48 states. There’s even a song to celebrate its greatness. I also used this cool app called StarView to identify stars and planets in the night sky. Jupiter, one of the five bright planets, was indeed bright and beautiful!

I didn’t want to leave, so I promised myself I’d come back when it’s a little cooler. Shoot, I may even decide to head to the McDonald Observatory in Ft. Davis (which has nothing to do with burgers and fries). But until then, I’ll get my stargazing fix at the George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park, another very cool place to see the stars and enjoy the natural beauty of the great state of Texas.

You can find Archie and the whole Adopt-a-Dino family in the HMNS Museum Store. Drop by and take one home!

Editor’s Note: Charlotte is the Vice President of Film Program and Distribution for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+

Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 4/25-5/1

Last week’s featured #HMNSBlockParty creation is by Miles Sparks (age: 8):

Block Party 19

Want to get your engineering handwork featured? Drop by our Block Party interactive play area and try your own hand building a gravity-defying masterpiece. Tag your photos with #HMNSBlockParty.

Film Screening – Fabergé: A Life of Its Own with Dorothy McFerrin
Monday, Apr. 25
6:30 p.m.
Released in June 2015, the documentary “Fabergé: A Life of Its Own,” tells the fascinating story behind of one of the most prestigious names in luxury from the Russian revolution to today. This program is cosponsored by Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

Behind-the-Scenes Tour – La Virgen de Guadalupe
Tuesday, Apr. 26
6:00 p.m.
Going back to the 8th century in a struggle between Muslim and Spanish naval forces and on to the appearance in the Aztec capital in the 15th century, Virgin of Guadalupe was adopted as a symbol in Europe and the New World during times of friction. Through the artwork and artifacts on display, your guide will trace the increasing role the Virgin of Guadalupe played in society.

Class – Amber Workshop
Tuesday, Apr. 26
6:00 p.m.
Join paleontologist David Temple for an examination of these amazing natural time capsules. This amber workshop includes time in the Amber Secrets, Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs exhibition, Morian Hall of Paleontology, and in the classroom where you will polish a piece of raw amber that will be yours to keep.

 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+