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Researching Curious Revolutionaries at MdHS

1988.10.1 Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) and his wife, Harriet (180The Lord Baltimore Fellowship was a wonderful way to expand my own research on the history of fossil display in museums, and curatorial research on the Peale family for the American Philosophical Society Museum’s newest exhibition.

In my own work, I had the wonderful opportunity to browse the MdHS’s Museum curatorial files on Peale’s epic Exhumation of the Mastodon (an image of which we included in our exhibition). There, I found many early educational pamphlets, evidence of its past exhibitions and educational materials, and photographs of parts of the Baltimore museum’s mastodon at the American Museum of Natural History, where it now resides.

Letter to Angelica Peale describing gas lamps to be installed in the Peale Philadelphia and Baltimore Museums, American Philosophical Society.

Letter to Angelica Peale describing gas lamps to be installed in the Peale Philadelphia and Baltimore Museums, American Philosophical Society.

Curious Revolutionaries: The Peales of Philadelphia explores the Peale family’s legacies not only as portrait painters, for which they are best known, but as patriots, naturalists, entrepreneurs, and tinkerers.

One of the research areas the MdHS collections most enhanced was our emphasis on the second generation of the Peale family, and the Peale’s legacy. In particular, MdHS collections helped our research on the relationships between generations, and the ways that Peale children carried on artistic and technical legacies of their father. Charles Willson Peale’s son Rembrandt Peale founded the Baltimore museum, completed in 1814, which focused less on natural history, and more on arts, science, and technology. As he said in an letter to Thomas Jefferson:

Having purchased the Museum in Baltimore, I mean to form a handsome establishment in that City, the general plan of which will differ from my fathers Museum, it being my intention to render It more properly a Museum of Arts & Sciences, and, without neglecting any branch of Natural History to bestow my chief attention to the formation of a Picture Gallery & Depository of the course and products of Manufactures (ND237.P28L2 V. 1).

Rembrandt’s museum became the first purpose-built in the United States. It’s other claim to fame is that gaslights installed there helped establish America’s first commercial gas company. The MdHS collections show the impacts of early developments we see in our APS collections.

A page in the Peale's Baltimore Museum account book which records Lafayette's visit. Baltimore Museum Account Book, 1814-1829, MS 92, MdHS. (REFERENCE PHOTO)

A page in the Peale’s Baltimore Museum account book which records Lafayette’s visit. Baltimore Museum Account Book, 1814-1829, MS 92, MdHS. (REFERENCE PHOTO)

One of the most exciting pieces in the collection is a Baltimore Peale Museum account book (MS 92), relating to window transparencies. The Peales were known for their spectacular patriotic window displays during and after the Revolution.  The account book had two interesting entries. First, an entry from October 1824 mentions a transparency produced for a visit by the Marquis de Lafayette, that may be a piece in our collection. Second, the book mentions muslin fabric being purchased for making transparencies. This is the first mention I have found that describes what these transparencies were made of.

In our section on the Peale’s artistic legacies, we included the image (found thanks to the sleuthing work of Lara Westwood and Library staff) of Rembrandt as an old man painting his famous Washington portraits, of which he made some 79 in his lifetime.

As he said in an 1826 letter from the collection:

Not less enthusiastic in the love of my art than for the character of Washington, my highest ambition has been to record his countenance. The success with which I have accomplished this task may be inferred from the testimony of those who were intimate with him. (MS1935 January 24, 1826 Peale, Rembrandt to Gov. Joseph Kent)

The inclusion of this image was a true highlight of our show, highlighting the intergenerational legacies of the Peales. (Dr. Diana E. Marsh)

 

The exhibit at the American Philosophical Society.

The exhibit at the American Philosophical Society.

Dr. Diana E. Marsh received the Lord Baltimore Fellowship in 2016. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives. She curated Curious Revolutionaries: The Peales of Philadelphia at the American Philosophical Society as the Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow in 2017.

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