An American Mastodon in Paris: A Story of Charles Willson Peale


Photo courtesy of wikipedia

Charles Wilson Peale: ever heard of him? 

Most people haven’t heard his name, but they probably have seen his work. Peale was one of the most famous portrait artists in the Colonies, and later the new United States, in the late 18th Century. He painted seven portraits of George Washington, some of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and many other founding fathers. He is known as the “Painter of the American Revolution“. 

After the American Revolution, Peale continued to paint and exhibit his works but in his later years he became increasingly interested in science. In the mid-1780s he set up one of the first natural history museums in the United States on the second floor of Independence Hall to exhibit his growing collection of gadgets, paintings and preserved animals. This is where the Mastodon comes in. Fossils of these animals, usually small, fragmentary pieces, had been popping up for decades in the New England colonies. At first these remains were a complete mystery, but as more samples came to light scholars began to realize that the bones were quite similar to those of elephants, but with important differences. It was during this period that the concept of extinction first came to light, and Mastodons were one of the most obvious examples of life forms that no longer existed.

In 1799, John Marsten discovered large animal bones on his farm outside Newburgh, New York. When they were identified as “mammoth” bones (people did not understand the difference between mastodons and mammoths at the time), Peale purchased them and paid Marsten for permission to search his property for more. Some of the bones discovered during this early paleontology excavation were submerged in a pond; the ensuing recovery effort is chronicled in the amazing painting below. 


Photo Courtesy of extinct

Peale and his son Rembrandt, Marsten, and many others were involved in the excavation of the fossils which were later exhibited in Peales’ museum. Although Peale wrongly believed that the animal was a vicious carnivore, his exhibit did a lot to expand public knowledge and interest in the subject of paleontology and was a source of great national pride.

Part of the reason the skeleton was such a big deal was because scholars in Europe at the time did not have a very high opinion of American fauna. They thought that the Americas had a volatile climate, poor soil, and limited sources of nutrition and that this deficit in natural abundance meant that native animal life forms—including people—were mentally and physically inferior to their European counterparts.

One of the proponents of this theory was Georges-Louis Leclerc Cout de Buffon, a famous French naturalist who not only proposed that the earth and other planets in the solar system were created by celestial collisions, but who also supported an early theory of speciation that vaguely suggested evolution. Buffon proposed that the earth was around 70,00 years old and that life had formed in a hot, primordial world in which the earth was still cooling from its fiery birth. His theory continued to say that animals were created spontaneously during this time, and then over the ages many of the larger animals migrated to the equator. This was the basis for his explanation of why Mammoth bones were found in Russia and Mastodon bones found in North America. He asserted that as these animals migrated, they changed a little to become better suited to their new environment: in essence, they adapted.

This idea, although not appreciated by many scholars at the time, was a great leap forward in the understanding of life on earth. Unfortunately, some of the assertions he made in his writings were not so great for science, or politics for that matter. For example, Buffon proposed that it was adaption to the poor climate of the Americas that lead to the mental and physical “inferiority” of native humans and animals. This idea, held by many scholars of the time including Buffon, would affect society in the Americas for the next two hundred years. As late as the 1940’s, Latin American governments created programs to encourage indigenous and mestizo citizens to eat European products to improve their physical and mental capacity, a sort of neo-Eugenics.

This theory was heavily disliked by early scholars and statesmen in the Unites States, partly because they were proud of their country and didn’t want it to be considered “lacking” in anything, and partly because the theory suggested that they too suffered the loss of nutrition and good climate and therefore could not live up to their European brethren. The “mammoths” were considered by Thomas Jefferson the be the “living” proof that the European scholars were wrong, and he even urged Lewis and Clarke to keep an eye out for living specimens during their journey. The Mastadon on display in Peale’s museum became a symbol of national pride and of the living diversity of North America’s wilderness, something the the U.S. is still famous for today.

So there you have it, from artist to paleontologist, Charles Willson Peale helped shape international perception of the Unites States. Although many people today have never heard of him, he lives on in the international legend of the heroic formation of the United States and the perception of the U.S. as the “land of plenty”. If you want to learn more about Peale, and the other men and women who have worked for the last 200 years to form a more perfect union, check out out new special exhibition Amending America: The Bill of Rights.


Art and the Animal: The Society of Animal Artists 56th Annual Members Exhibition at HMNS

Matthew Hillier – “Snowy In The Shallows”

Matthew Hillier – “Snowy In The Shallows”

Opening soon at HMNS –  Art and the Animal: The Society of Animal Artists 56th Annual Members Exhibition

September 23, 2016 – January 1, 2017

The Society of Animal Artists (SAA), founded in 1960, is devoted to promoting excellence in the artistic portrayal of the creatures sharing our planet, and to the education of the public through art exhibitions, informative seminars, lectures and teaching demonstrations.

Barn owl by Simon Gudgeon, Life size, bronze and mild steel, limited edition of 12

Barn owl by Simon Gudgeon, Life size, bronze and mild steel, limited edition of 12

It is the mission of the Society of Animal Artists (SAA) to educate the public on the fact that the genre of animal art is no different than the various art forms which focus on the human figure, landscape, still life, etc. All living creatures are acceptable as subject matter: birds, mammals, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, insects, etc. – both wild and domestic.

Patricia Pepin – “Quietude”

Patricia Pepin – “Quietude”

The Society simply requires that they be depicted correctly, utilizing fine art techniques. All fine art mediums are acceptable: acrylics, oils, watercolor (both opaque and transparent), graphite, pen and ink, scratchboard, ceramic, wood, stone, bronze, etc.

Carrie Cook – “On the Inside Looking Out”

Carrie Cook – “On the Inside Looking Out”

Admission to this exhibit is included with entrance to the permanent exhibit halls.


Kids Explore STEAM Careers with HMNS Outreach

Inspiring a child takes effort, time, passion and heart. It’s why we do what we do.

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, discoveries are made daily. The sounds of learning fill our hallways every day, from the gasp of wonder from a kid stepping onto the Morian Overlook for the first time or the squeal of delight as a butterfly in the Cockrell Butterfly Center rests on a child’s shoulder. Those sounds are all the evidence we need to know we are upholding HMNS’ mission, its commitment to education.

For the kids that may not be able to get to the museum, there is HMNS Outreach. Our variety of programs brings HMNS straight to the community, visiting hundreds of schools and organizations each year and reaching more than 100,000 children in 2015 alone. The ultimate goal is to instill in these kids a love of learning that will carry them to new heights in their careers and throughout their lives.

Here are some of the many STEAM careers that HMNS Outreach can inspire a child to reach for.


The TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels offers an extraordinary look at animals of all kinds. Students get an up close and personal encounter with wildlife ranging from snakes and frogs to birds and mammals.

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Students in Turner High School’s Vet Tech program observe the wing of a Ringneck Dove, which travels as part of the TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels Vertebrates program.

Forensic Scientist

A presentation of Cleanup Crew from the Bugs On Wheels program will cover the process of decomposition and the return of vital elements to the Earth. These principles of decomposition are crucial to forensic scientists, who use arthropods and fungi to study crime scenes and gather more information.


Entomologist Erin Mills shows off a Giant African Millipede during a presentation of the Bugs On Wheels program Cleanup Crew.


Body Works is our newest set of programs in the Science Start family, and these presentations focus on the anatomy and capabilities of the human body. From the brain to the heart to the skeleton, each of these presentations will provide students with a comprehensive overview of what we can do with what we’ve got.



A Chevron Earth Science On Wheels program like Know Your Rocks is immensely useful for future careers in Geology. A students’ knowledge of the rock cycle and the differences between different types of rocks and fuels can be vital in fields such as the energy industry.


A student discusses the properties of two different specimens with his classmates during a presentation of Know Your Rocks.


A visit from the HMNS Discovery Dome includes more than 40 different shows about a range of topics, including a classic planetarium show, The Starry Night. One of today’s kids could discover a new planet, a galaxy, or even a black hole, and the Dome provides a great foundation for an interest in astronomy.

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Students at Reagan High School file into the Discovery Dome for a screening of Cosmic Collisions, a show narrated by Robert Redford about different outer space encounters between celestial objects.


An interest in foreign cultures can take you all over the world or even back in time. Anthropologists study the history of humanity, and Docents To Go programs such as Native Americans or Ancient Egypt provide students with an introduction to different communities and societies.


Volunteer Bob Joyce shows an arrowhead and arrow used for hunting by Native Americans.


Try a ConocoPhillips Science On Stage program like Cool Chemistry, which discusses different chemical reactions as well as the properties of polymers and liquid nitrogen. It’s a great glimpse into what chemistry is all about!


Educator Carolyn Leap discusses the properties of a polymer during a presentation of Cool Chemistry.


Students at Johnston Middle School have had the opportunity to sketch animals from the museum’s TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels and Bugs On Wheels programs over the years, and they’ve produced some spectacular pieces, like the crocodile skull below.


These are just a few of the many STEAM careers that are natural extensions of the concepts discussed in HMNS Outreach. We are proud to play an important role in the lives of students all over the Houston area and beyond, and we are honored to have the opportunity to inspire the next generation.


A student draws Peanut, a Costa Rican Curly Hair Tarantula, as Peanut cooperatively sits still.

To book HMNS Outreach, email, call us at the number listed on our site, or fill out this form online. We look forward to working with you!

Let’s Make an Art Journal

Let's Make an Art Journal

Something I have been thinking about for some time is starting a nature/art/travel journal. This little project has been sitting on the back burner for a while, but recently got moved directly to the front when I got the opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia for work.

I love the combination of compact information and artistic license that this type of journaling affords. I found these examples below during a quick search on Pinterest. There are a million different ways to create these journals but the three examples below most closely align with what I am thinking of creating.

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While I do have some experience with the arts and crafts, I have been hesitant to start this specific project.  Why? Here’s a fun fact:  I am not a very good drawer at drawing.  Seriously.

You know those books about combining circles to create body shapes and then animals? This is pretty much how I feel.



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You know those people who can draw three wiggly lines on a page and end up with a bird? This is not a skill I have. 

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In the past I have skirted around this issue by taking a picture of the thing I want to draw and then drawing that picture. This seems to work reasonably well for me. I can then focus on two dimensional shapes and the thing isn’t moving. I will also admit that it takes me a looonnnnggg time to fuss with the drawings to make sure they are accurate. Or at least reasonable.

So…limited ability combined with and abundance of enthusiasm…. This is going to be great.

In starting this journal, I had some stipulations for myself. I wanted it spiral bound so that it seemed more like a book when I was finished and, more practically, this gets the cover out of the way without bending the pages. Plus, if I want to rip out a page and send it to my mom or whatever, there’s not a raw jagged edge in the middle of the book like there would be in a bound book. I wanted a book with pages that were thicker than sketch paper and had more tooth than drawing paper because I didn’t want the images to bleed through and I also wanted to add color at some point. So, watercolor paper is what I picked. It is juuuuust thick enough that, if you don’t linger, your sharpie won’t bleed through.

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I also wanted a book with fewer pages than a sketch book. The first sketch books I looked at had 200 pages. This seemed like too much of an emotional commitment for a project that I wasn’t 100% sure about anyway. So off to Texas Art Supply I went, where I found this watercolor book with only 24 pages. Perfect!

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All the options.

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What I ended up with.

Step one in this project was to create a cover page. This was my mental equivalent to getting the first scratch on a new car. I did it while watching a movie and tried not to think too much about it. I just doodled and erased until I ended up with something that I liked. Once I had the letters outlined, I tried to add some details to make it a little more interesting.

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The second step was to set some “rules” for myself. These are the things I want to make sure I incorporate into each page. I decided on the following:

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• A date
• A location
• A picture
• Information about the picture. (This can also include questions to answer later about the subject matter.)

Everything else is subject to negotiation!

So the first entry into my brand new journal was about our adventures to Al uqair. On the second day of our trip our hosts very kindly took us into the desert to see this ancient fort of Islamic origins. The fort, which contained a market, a jail, customs offices, and more, has been there so long and was so continuously occupied, that no one is certain when it was established. Linked by some to Gerrha, and located a short distance from the fertile oasis of al hasa, Al uqair has been a well-established trading post for hundreds of years. Before that, thousands of years ago, and just 300 miles north, the Mesopotamian, Sumerian and Babylonian cultures flourished. More recently, in 1922, it was the site where political leaders met to define the borders between northeastern Saudia Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq and, to meet the needs of the Bedouin tribes, to determine a “neutral zone”.

I made this short .gif with an app on my phone so you can see the process I went through on this the first page of my journal. I kept forgetting to stop and take pictures so it goes pretty fast!

al uqair