The Artist in His Museum
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Artist in His Museum is an 1822 self-portrait by the American artist Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827). Toward the end of his career, beginning in 1822, he painted seven self-portraits that together formed the final motif of his art and the final flourishing of his talent. The Artist in His Museum is a large-scale oil-on-canvas work painted in about two months, and is the most emblematic of Peale's many self-portraits.
There are three spaces in the work. The foreground of the painting depicts in low light some natural objects of the museum. At the front left, a dead wild turkey sits with Peale's taxidermic tools, brought back by his son Titian and waiting to join the collection to reveal its meaning as a national symbol. Another American symbol, the bald eagle, is higher on the left edge of the canvas, mounted by Peale—"the strength of the Eagles Eye is really astonishing"—and is now one of his few surviving specimens. On the extreme left is an early donation: a paddlefish from the Allegheny River in an upright case, marked "With this article the Museum commenced, June, 1784". To Peale's left lie the bones of a mastodon; the assembled skeleton that shows from behind the curtain was the museum's main attraction. Peale had unearthed and reconstructed a mastodon in 1800, an event he chronicled in his 1806 painting Exhuming the First American Mastodon (left). The artist's palette and brushes to his left contribute to the autobiographical statement.
The middle ground highlights Peale. In the painting, the artist invites the viewer into his museum; he pulls back a draped crimson curtain, which divides the painting's space, to reveal the collection. He used a similar motif on the printed acknowledgments he sent to museum donors, on which a curtain labeled "Nature" is held back to reveal a landscape with animals. According to critic David C. Ward, the positioning of Peale "has the effect of creating a dialectic between life and art, painter and audience, the individual and American culture at large, and finally past and present. The figure of Peale bridges these realms … further drawing attention to and heightening the impact of his creativity."
The deep background behind the curtain gives the portrait its unique significance. Peale collected thousands of specimens of birds and other animals for his museum by soliciting donations or hunting them himself. The museum's receding shelves display animal species organized by Linnaean classification, and above them are portraits of revolutionary heroes and other notable Americans, whose placement suggests the position of humans in the great chain of being. Peale believed that physiognomy, whether of humans in portraits or of animal specimens, provided insight into character. To Peale, the behavior of animals served as a model for a moral, productive, and socially harmonious society. In the far background a child represents posterity benefiting from the museum's lessons in natural history. Likewise the woman nearer to the foreground represents the museum's power to inspire feelings of awe and wonder in the face of the sublime. Yet as the space recedes, so does Peale's life and the intellectual and scientific culture of the time—the American Enlightenment.