Peale’s ‘Mastodon’: Capturing American ambition


"Exhumation of the Mastodon." Oil on canvas by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1807; on view at the Maryland Historical Society. (Courtesy The Maryland Historical Society/Courtesy The Maryland Historical Society)

There was good news and bad this month for local dinosaur lovers. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History took possession (on 50-year loan) of an impressive Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton — but closed its dinosaur hall for a major renovation.

Skeletons like this never fail to excite the imagination, just as they did in 1801 when America mustered its scientific resources to unearth a giant mastodon skeleton in rural Upstate New York. The great American polymath Charles Willson Peale directed the dig and recorded it in a painting that hangs in the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. Peale’s “Exhumation of the Mastodon” is a classic American mix of art, public relations, self-promotion and pure intellectual exuberance. The water wheel system makes the scene look more like an early industrial project but was, in fact, Peale’s own invention for keeping the pit dry. The cluster of figures on the right includes Peale, holding an image of the prehistoric beast’s leg; around him are his family members.

The mastodon ended up in a museum in Germany, where it remains today. But the painting captures America’s ambition: to create its own history and prehistory, to exercise its scientific and organizational resources, master its still largely unexplored territory, ally science and industry to greater ends, and record it all for posterity — and silence European skeptics, who still considered the nascent republic a backwater, politically, intellectually and artistically.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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