But the exhibition is often disappointing. Claire Perry, a deeply knowledgeable curator, has taken on more than can be managed in a show of modest dimensions, and she has chosen objects that don’t always further her rhetorical aims and all too often lack visual appeal.
Like the museum’s exhibition devoted to George Ault and the art of the 1940s (on view until Sept. 5), the “Hall of Wonders” is elaborated as much in its catalogue as in the visual material on the walls. But unlike the focused and idiosyncratic Ault exhibition, the “Hall of Wonders” isn’t sure what it wants to say. And worse, Perry’s reading of the paintings doesn’t always feel trustworthy. Lots of curators “over read” their material — and a brilliant “over reading” can be thrilling — but Perry simply sees things that aren’t there or are so ambiguous as to be unconvincing.
The “Hall of Wonders” takes its inspiration from an 1822 painting by the American painter and naturalist Charles Willson Peale, who produced iconic images of the Founding Fathers and founded a museum in Philadelphia, where he exhibited an enormous mastodon skeleton, among other wonders. Peale’s 1822 self-portrait, made when he was 81, shows a vigorous silver-haired man, dressed in a sober black coat, pulling up a sumptuously theatrical red curtain. Revealed behind the cloth is a long gallery of zoological treasures and a tantalizing glimpse of the mastodon bones.
Although parts of the canvas are clumsily painted, it is a magnificent image, capturing Peale’s strange mix of showmanship and intellectual gravitas. In 1780, John Adams wrote to his wife that he and his generation would study the arts of government and war in order that their sons could study “mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history.” And their sons, in turn, would study science so that Adam’s grandsons might have the “right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” Peale embodied it all, republican severity and self-discipline, and artistic accomplishment, all cohabiting in one very fine old curmudgeon, and all in less than a generation.
It is a very good place to begin an exhibition. Like a giant painting from the same period on display at the National Gallery, Samuel Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre,” created by the inventor of the telegraph, Peale’s self-portrait emphasizes the mutual dependence of both science and art on keen observation. It shows how fundamental the museum — and the broader impulse to collect, classify and catalogue — was to American intellectual ambition, and it underscores the quaint and endearing belief that the knowledge of the world could be contained, encompassed and digested by a single mind.