Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), one of the most gifted of early American artists, was a man of many talents. He studied painting with Benjamin West in London for only two and one half years. Later he pursued a military career during the American Revolution, and served as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. After retiring from politics in 1780, he dedicated himself to his art and to his boundless interest in natural history. Two years later, he opened an exhibition gallery in Philadelphia, a sky-lighted addition to his studio, where he displayed his portraits of prominent revolutionaries, diplomats, and other significant figures. This unique gallery would expand to become America's first popular museum of natural science and art, comparable in its time to the Smithsonian Institution today.
Thomas Jefferson and Peale were friends who shared an enthusiasm for natural history, science, exploration, and the future. Peale's 1791 life portrait of Jefferson was exhibited in the museum at the time Jefferson was elected president of the museum's Board of Visitors in February 1792. In a 1793 letter to George Washington Greene, Jefferson described the museum as "considerable and worthy of encouragement."1
Many of the specimens sent by Lewis and Clark from "their wild and perilous expedition" to Jefferson were displayed in Peale's museum, including the Mandan buffalo robe, a live prairie dog, and two large, live magpies. Peale was in charge of preserving many of the skins and bones from the expedition, since he was an able taxidermist. He mounted the heads of two bighorn sheep, one for his museum and one for the entrance hall at Monticello.
- KKO, "Charles Wilson Peale and His Museum," Monticello Research Report, 4/23/93
Jefferson-Peale Correspondence. Transcriptions available at Founders Online.