- Historic Sites
‘The ingenious Captain Peale” sired a dynasty of painters and started America’s first great museum.
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
Finally, dismayed by the excesses of the mob and anguished at the loss of his friends, he suffered a kind of mental breakdown that lasted two years, and from which he emerged only as the war was ending. That was the end of Peale the Soldier and Peale the Politician, and his contribution to the victory celebration in 1783 was almost the end of Peale himself, nearly fulfilling the worst fears his wife had felt ever since she watched him first experiment with fire.
It was a regular Peale practice to celebrate great public events, the surrender at Yorktown, the birthday of the Dauphin and the like, by the display of transparent pictures in the windows of their house, lighted from behind and eulogizing the heroes of the hour. When Arnold turned traitor, Peale constructed the float and the two-faced effigy which was hauled through the Philadelphia streets in disgrace. Some years later, when Washington was making his state progress northward, en route to his inaugural, the Peales erected a row of arches under which the mounted hero entered Philadelphia, not the least feature of which was a mechanism designed to drop a laurel wreath on Wash ington’s head as he passed under it. Pretty Angelica Peale, then fifteen, pulled the lanyard and ringed the target. (The family legend is that the great man dismounted and bestowed a courtly kiss on the little girl.)
But to celebrate the end of the Revolution, Peale prepared a masterpiece which did not work so well. The State Assembly commissioned “the ingenious Captain Peale” to set up a temporary arch of triumph over Market Street, the main thoroughfare of Philadelphia; there was to be a fireworks display as well. Peale spent months getting things ready. The arch he built was of classic Roman design, heavily inscribed in Latin, adorned with flimsy oil paper paintings to be illuminated from behind with over a thousand lanterns; they depicted such subjects as Washington in the character of Cincinnatus and Louis XVI of France, the worthy ally. Statues of Justice, Fortitude and other selected virtues crowned the parapet, but there was an empty space in the middle for Peak’s chef-d’oeuvre , a large statue of Peace. Instead, Peace rested on a nearby roof top, and it was planned to have her slide down a rope and into position at a dramatic moment, touching off a display of 700 rockets. Members of the family were stationed all over the arch, and an artillery company stood ready to discharge the rockets. Night fell and a vast crowd gathered. Peale and his son Raphaelle took to the roof, ready to light up Peace and send her on her way.
Suddenly, some bystander, probably drunk, set off a rocket prematurely. It ignited the highly inflammable paintings on the arch and all the fireworks, setting off a holocaust. A number were injured and one man was killed. Peale himself leapt to the arch in an attempt to save the day, but several rockets got entwined in his coat and, exploding inside, set him afire. Jumping to the ground he broke two ribs and, followed at intervals by his dazed male relatives, he staggered home, burned and bruised, into his wife’s arms. He was weeks recovering. The arch, later rebuilt and restaged largely at Peak’s expense, nearly bankrupted him. His political activities had cost him most of his portrait trade.
And thus he turned to something new. For some time the artist had given floor space in his picture gallery to a few old bones, gigantic in size, which had been presented to him as curiosities. One day Ramsay, his blunt brother-in-law, dropped in to see them and gave it as his opinion that, while a few people might like paintings, things like these bones would really bring crowds. Peale agreed enthusiastically.
What began shortly after the Revolution as a picture gallery behind his house at Third and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia, with a few curiosities exhibited here and there, grew into a never-before-equaled collection of birds, animals and reptiles, arranged according to the classical order of Linnaeus, handsomely mounted and stuffed by Peale and his family. Many he had caught himself, with gun and bag. Others were contributed by his friends (Franklin once sent him the corpse of his French angora cat and Washington some dead pheasants; Jefferson shipped him specimens brougnt back by Lewis and Clark’s expedition). That other animal, man (anticipating Darwin, Peak was sure of some relationship with monkeys), was represented not only by Peale’s rows of portraits but by elaborate life-size waxworks of the various races.
Although he had no formal education and never became a scholar, Peale somehow picked up enough to arrange it all with rare skill and taste. The age craved showmanship and freaks, a thirst Barnum was later to satisfy to the damage of science, but Peale took his duties seriously. He placed all his specimens in natural surroundings, part stage set, part painted backdrop; a hundred years ahead of his time, he had invented the “habitat” group. There were, in addition, displays of minerals, of insects, and all branches of natural history; 100,000 items altogether, including the trigger finger of an executed murderer. A live eagle screamed in the rafters; the first complete mastodon skeleton ever assembled stood in a place of honor. Peale, who thought it was a mammoth, had dug it up himself.