16 • The Thigh Bone of an Elephant

16 • The Thigh Bone of an Elephant

Africa; 17th or 18th century
96.5 cm long

This impressive elephant femur bone reputedly once belonged to Charles Wilson Peale (1741–1827) and can be seen proudly propped beside him in his self-portrait of 1822.

The Artist in His Museum, Charles Wilson Peale, 1822, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia

This painting was completed by Peale when he was 81 years old and called The Artist in his Museum, a title which betrays just a few of his remarkable accomplishments. Painter, print maker, saddle maker, watchmaker, silversmith, dance instructor, army o7cer, collector, museum founder, philanthropist, father of 17 children and perhaps the most fashionable portraitist of the American Revolution era, which included commissions by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

However it was nature which was to become Peale’s foremost interest, and he became a great advocate for the idea that the human mind could be greatly enriched through a better understanding and observation of the natural world. In many ways this painting serves as a visual epitaph to both that belief but also his life, raising the curtain for us to peer onto the stage and its story, all the while looking directly at us as the central performer. There is a strong sense of prophecy given his death a few years after this portrait was completed, showing himself as an old man dressed completely in black, surrounded by fossils, bones and a dead bird.

Beyond that however are the fruits of a life well lived – rows of natural wonders all identified, studied and treasured; presented beautifully and made accessible to everybody, as was his wish. He paints in a few visitors – a man with his son and a woman overcome in awe, presumably by the complete mastodon skeleton lurking behind the curtain whose excavation Peale was responsible for in 1801, the first of its kind.

In St Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren’s gravestone has the following inscription in Latin: si monumentum requiris, cicumspice – ‘if you seek a monument, look about you’. Here was Peale’s monumentum, and this bone is part of that extraordinary legacy.