<i>The Exhumation of the Mastodon</i>, oil on canvas, by Charles Willson Peale, 1806-08, Maryland Historical Society (americanart.si.edu)

The Exhumation of the Mastodon, oil on canvas, by Charles Willson Peale, 1806-08, Maryland Historical Society (americanart.si.edu)

Charles Willson Peale

APRIL 29, 2022

Scientist of the Day - Charles Willson Peale

Charles Willson Peale, an American painter and museum owner, was born in Maryland on Apr. 15, 1741, and moved to Philadelphia in 1776.  He established a museum there, Peale’s Museum, in 1786, which was the country’s first public museum.  We discussed Peale’s Museum, and some of his early portraits, in a post on Peale on his birthday two weeks ago, with a promise to continue the discussion at the next opportunity.  Today we are going to look into perhaps the most famous episode in Peale’s life, his “exhumation of the mastodon” in 1801.

Elephant-like bones had been turning up in colonial America since the early 1700’s, most notably at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky, and had been discussed in European journals for decades (see our post on William Hunter for an example).  They were thought to represent an unknown animal known only as the “American incognitum.”  When further bones were presented to the American Philosophical Society in 1799, a committee at the Society, which included Peale and Thomas Jefferson, decided they needed to find a complete skeleton for the museum.  As fate would have it, they soon heard (in early 1801) that a landowner just up the Hudson River from New York City, in Orange County, had discovered some giant bones in a marl pit on his farm, and they were laid out on the barn floor for locals to gawk at, for a fee.  Caspar Wistar went up and tried to buy the bones, and was rejected.  Peale thought he would have a go and try a more subtle approach.

So up he went, in July of 1801, to Masten’s farm, just north of West Point.  Peale told the owner that he just wanted to sketch the bones.  There were lots of them, but some important bones, like the skull and jaw, were missing. After befriending the family, Peale learned from a son that the bones might be for sale after all, since the initial crowd of paying onlookers had diminished, and the barn floor was needed for other things.  Peale offered to buy them for $200, and he also paid for the rights to further excavate the marl pit, in hopes of finding the jaw.  Soon the barn floor was cleared of bones, which were crated and shipped to Philadelphia.

Everyone was quite excited at the Society, and although Jefferson was now in Washington, as the country’s third President, he stayed involved, and agreed to lend equipment to help drain the marshy marl pit.  The Society put up the money to excavate.  So in August of 1801, Charles headed back up the Hudson River with his son Rembrandt, and they proceeded to hire workers to search the pit for more bones.  They set up a large wheel to run a conveyor belt to remove water, so that the workmen could muck about looking for bones.  They found quite a few, but no skull or jaw.  But the celebrity of the dig prompted other farmers in the area to come forward and inform that large bones had turned up on their lands as well.  So the excavators moved sideways, to a site at Millpaw, and then the Barber farm, and at the latter site, they found their jaw.  They now had, in Peale’s estimation, enough bones for one complete skeleton plus 3/4 of another, if they made copies of some of the left-side bones for the right side, and vice versa.  They hauled their treasures back to the Museum.

Some years later, Peale commemorated the 1801 event with a painting, The Exhumation of the Mastadon (1806-08), which is about as dynamic a piece of art as the early Republic produced (first image).  It shows the Masten pit, with the conveyer belt and wheel in motion, and workmen holding up bones found on the pit bottom.  On a bank at the right stands the entire Peale family, collectively holding a drawing of one of the legs of the incognitum.  There do not seem to be any high-resolution images of the painting available online, so I did the best I could to make a detail of the Peale group on the bank (third image, above).  The painting is owned by the Maryland Historical Society, but it was on loan last year to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for their Humboldt exhibition, which was the source for our reproduction.

By December of 1801, Peale had one of the mastodons mounted and on display in the Museum.  Rembrandt and a woodworker had fashioned replacement bones out of wood wherever they were needed, including the tusks.  It proved to be a profitable attraction, as one might imagine.  Twenty years later, Peale included the mount in one of his self-portraits, The Artist in his Museum (1822).  We showed the complete painting in our first Peale post; here we show a slightly enlarged detail, with the mastodon being revealed by a curtain, a femur or humerus leaning against a rail, and a piece of a jaw with an intact molar in the foreground (fourth image, above),

We have called the beast a mastodon throughout, because that is what it is (or was), but that name did not yet exist in 1801.  To Peale, it was the incognitum, or a mammoth, or an elephant.  It was Georges Cuvier, the French comparative anatomist, who decided that the American incognitum was a different species from the Siberian mammoth, or the elephant, and gave it the name mastodon, after the breast-shaped cusps on its molars.  We happen to have his 1806 engraving that shows Peale’s mount, and first uses the label “mastodon,” in our serials collections (fifth image, just above).

With his own mount so successful, Peale decided to fashion a second mount from the remaining bones and some made-up pieces and exhibit it abroad.  Rembrandt Peale took it to England in 1802, and intended to accompany it to France, but that proved difficult in the new era of Napoleon, and he eventually just brought it home.  But while in London, he did write a book about the unearthing of the mastodon, An Historical Disquisition on the Mammoth (1803), which we also happen to have in our collections.   We told Rembrandt’s story, and showed the titlepage of his book, in our post on Rembrandt .

Peale’s mastodon was really the paleontological find of the century, at least in the United States.  It became America’s mascot, a symbol of a wild and feisty country, and the single best refutation of George Buffon’s claim that New-World animals were “degenerate”, smaller versions of Old-World animals.  The most formidable beast in the history of beasts was American, and everyone in America was proud to claim him as a fellow American.

Peale’s original mastodon mount is still with us.  Well, not us exactly, but it is still around.  It was sold to a German museum in the 1840s, when Peale’s Museum was in financial difficulty; it is usually on display in the Natural History Museum of Hesse in Darmstadt.  In 2020, the skeleton was loaned to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for their Humboldt exhibit, where it was displayed right next to The Exhumation of the Mastodon (sixth image, just above). The exhibit opened a year late, because of the epidemic, so the mastodon got to stay an extra year.  Presumably it is now back home in Darmstadt.

In our third and last installment on Peale, we will discuss his portraits of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and his connection to their expedition, show some of Peale’s other portraits that have a scientific connection, and provide a segue to his four sons, Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian Ramsay, all of whom already have been the subjects of posts in this series.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.