Curious Revolutionaries: The Peales of Philadelphia

April 7-December 30, 2017
104 South Fifth Street, Philadelphia, PA

The Peales were an extraordinary, and extraordinarily curious, early American family. They were patriots, artists, entrepreneurs, naturalists, and tinkerers. The current exhibition at the American Philosophical Society Museum explores the Peale family’s role in shaping early American popular culture through these various pursuits.

Charles Willson and his brother James began their artistic careers by painting portraits of America’s founders. In 1786, Charles Willson Peale converted his portrait studio into the nation’s first successful public museum. In 1794, Peale’s Philadelphia Museum expanded and moved to the APS’s Philosophical Hall—the site of the current exhibition—where it remained until 1810.

Peale’s museum educated Americans through scientifically classified displays. To entertain and turn a profit, Peale mounted the world’s first mastodon, experimented with new technologies, and sold silhouette souvenirs. Later generations of aptly named Peales—including Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian—continued the family franchise. 

Curious Revolutionaries is drawn largely from the APS holdings, in particular the extensive Peale-Sellers Family Collection. The exhibition showcases materials ranging from letters, diaries, and sketchbooks to oil paintings, patent models, and silhouettes. This variety reflects the diverse interests and prolific production of the ever-curious Peales and their influence on the museums we visit today. 

Support for this exhibition was provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Philadelphia Cultural Fund, APS Members and Friends, and donations by visitors to the APS Museum.