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The Impossible Museum


He stands before us, large as life, the old artist in his museum. With his right arm he holds up the heavy, purple velvet curtain so that we can cast a first glance at the wonders of the carefully arranged collection in the long, light hall behind. On the left wall begin several rows of showcases: miniature dioramas, all the same size and shape. Exhibited within are stuffed birds of various provenances. Above them, reaching up to just under the ceiling and completing the wall, are a series of uniform format paintings; portraits, clearly of historic celebrities.

One can also see a few visitors. A father instructs his young son who is holding an open book in his hands (the museum guidebook?). A Quaker woman stands startled and fearful in front of a huge mastodon skeleton, the museum’s half-covered showpiece; and in the far back is a man with his arms crossed. The serious-faced artist in the darkly lit proscenium invites us to enter the main space of his school of knowledge, set in the central perspective. He has laid aside the normal attributes—palette, paints, brushes. Discernible on the wooden floor around him, brought together as though a still life, are the corpse of a wild turkey (perhaps a souvenir from an excursion to the Rocky Mountains) and taxidermist instruments; on the right side of the picture, a phallic mammoth bone and a jaw.

The work in question is the infamous self-portrait, The Artist in His Museum, which 81-year-old Charles Willson Peale painted in 1822, five years before his death. It was commissioned by the board of trustees of the Philadelphia Museum Company in recognition of the artist’s life accomplishment—the collection kept in the Pennsylvania State House that Peale, founder of the Philadelphia Museum Company, assembled and maintained as a family business from 1784 onward. For the most part, the decisions and activities of the newly created board of trustees were in response to the wishes of the founder, who, at the time, was also the only stockholder. The founding of a stock company had become necessary to maintain the collection for the city of Philadelphia. “All the national museums in the world … were from beginnings of individuals,” wrote the artist in 1790 in his first appeal, “To the Citizens of the United States of America,” which was printed in several newspapers. Yet Peale’s greatest wish would remain unfulfilled: the transformation of his museum into a publicly-funded national museum. He donated his Self-Portrait in the Character of a Painter (1824) to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. This institution, too, was founded by Peale, together with other artists—including one of his sons, Rembrandt Peale—and several businessmen.

Peale switched from saddlery, the first trade he learned, to the more profitable field of painting. A true “son of liberty,” he took part in the American Revolution and painted all of its heroes. For example, he immortalized George Washington a total of sixty times. Peale exhibited his portraits—or copies of them, if they had been sold—in his home studio gallery. That’s how it all began. In 1785, an elderly Benjamin Franklin had returned after nearly ten years of service as US ambassador to France. Regarding the museum issue, he and the other friends of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia had gathered a few ideas and more detailed concepts from the Old World, including, for example, the venerable Ashmolean in Oxford (“Britain’s first public museum”), which was preceded by the Musaeum Tradescantianum; and the British Museum, founded from the collection left behind by Sir Hans Sloane in 1753. Generally praised was also Sir Ashton Lever’s collection of nature objects and curiosities, which had moved from Manchester to London. The one-person endeavor was called “Holophusikon.” After the owner’s bankruptcy, the collection was raffled off in a lottery (since neither the British Museum nor Russian Czar Catherine II wanted to buy it), and ultimately sold at auction. For Peale, who had purchased several of the objects, this was not a good sign.

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