Charles Wilson Peale Exhibit at Second Bank

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by kjlouden on August 18, 2005

Since Thomas Eakins and Whitman were good friends, one might plan a day’s itinerary around the poets’ and artists’ sites of Philly/Camden. A trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art would be sure to reveal plenty of Eakins’ work, but I never want to go to a major museum on my first tour of a city. Instead, I decide to see the Charles Wilson Peale gallery at Second Bank. (Ironically, I spend as much time here as I would have spent at the Museum of Art.)

I find the huge collection of portraits fascinating, even though I have intended for this day to focus on 19th-century artists and their friends. So here I am, destroying my day’s coherent timeline and retrogressing back to the founding-fathers’ focus. I guess you just can’t get away from that in Philly!

The Second Bank building itself, designed by William Strickland, is beautiful, pale marble built in Grecian style modeled after the Parthenon. Inside, the main gallery looks like this:

I take photos of every portrait--and no guard stops me! Each one has a little biographical note below it, and I find many that aren’t familiar to me. Even though I photograph the biographical notes for future study, I am compelled to read them all here. Well, this is the only place I know where one can read about so many of these guys in one place! That is what takes me so long. Another room has more portraits (185 in all). If you want to make sure you aren’t overlooking any important 18th-century notables, then you want to spend more than an hour here.

After studying all the portraits in the front room, I stand in the center of the gallery and look all around, scanning the collection. This is a good way to get a broad perspective on everything that was going on in every walk of life over a span of just a few decades, beginning with the Revolution. Heroes of all backgrounds are represented, even the Mohawk Chief Thayendanegea. One group represents members of the Philosophical Society, founded by Ben Franklin. These include David Rittenhouse, astronomer; William Clark, explorer, cartographer, and botanist; and Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat. Here is Meriwether Lewis:

Another room displays several Supreme Court Justices, and I am especially interested in John Marshall, since I have been reading about Thomas Jefferson’s dispute with him and his failure to convict Aaron Burr. I think he looks mean, and I side with Jefferson anyway on the matter of Supreme Court autonomy.

Since my visit, I have discovered an interesting note on Peale. A student of Benjamin West before West moved to England. Peale wrote to him after the Revolution to ask if there was demand in England for portraits of George Washington, and West replied that the Brits would also like paintings of American military uniforms. Notes in the gallery, too, instruct us on how artists managed their careers in pre-tech times.

Second Bank of the United States
420 Chestnut St
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19106
+1 215 597 8974

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