Visiting the House of Peale

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by BawBaw on May 4, 2012

The Second Bank of the United States was the Federal Reserve of its era. The bank was established in 1816 to deal with the debts arising from the War of 1812, and its charter was allowed to expire in 1836—after it became embroiled in a political maelstrom pitting bank president Nicholas Biddle against the full force of will wielded by President Andrew Jackson.

The Greek Revival structure built to house the bank was completed in 1824 and was modeled on the Parthenon. Now it is part of Independence National Historical Park, and it provides an impressive home for portraits and statuary (mostly paintings) of the Founding generation of American political leaders. Many of those portraits were executed in the years just after the American Revolution by portraitist Charles Willson Peale, with a few by his brother James and his sons Rembrandt and Raphaelle. The works of other artists are part of the collection—including pieces by William Rush, Gilbert Stuart, James Sharples, and Thomas Sully—but in terms of sheer presence, the Portrait Gallery in the Second Bank of the United States has become the House of Peale.

When Himself and Yours Truly visited Philadelphia in March 2012, we included a visit to the Second Bank as part of our tour, largely because Himself wanted to see the Peale paintings, particularly those of George Washington and John Adams. (He has recently read several books focusing on the two presidents.) The portraits that received his particular attention included James Peale’s portrait of General Washington against a backdrop of the Battle of Yorktown and one of Washington on a white horse by Rembrandt Peale. Portraits depicting John Adams and Martha Curtis Washington in their later years as painted by Charles Willson Peale also garnered his attention.

Altogether the Portrait Gallery owns 185 portraits of prominent Americans from the late colonial and early national periods. Many of the subjects are predictable—Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin is depicted several times, as is Thomas Jefferson. There are also portraits of John Jay, Thomas Paine, James Madison, John Paul Jones, Alexander Hamilton, and others who signed either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Portraits of important foreign nationals who supported the cause of American independence include the Marquis de Lafayette from France and Casimir Pulaski from Poland.

I would like to say that I was heartened by the diversity represented within the collection. The list of sitters indeed did include a small number women and minorities—including Dolley Payne Todd (who became Mr. James Madison), Thayendanegea (aka, Joseph Brant, a Mohawk chief who became a Christian missionary and served as a captain in the British army during the Revolution), and Absalom Jones (a former slave who became the first African-American ordained as an Episcopal priest, painting on loan from the Delaware Art Museum). In point of fact, however, these exceptions did more to underscore the homogeneity of the early American elite—they were the exceptions that proved the rule.

The larger and more important pieces of the collection are displayed in the museum main gallery, a large vaulted chamber that runs the length of the building. The art is attractively presented against partially translucent backdrops spaced through the center of the room. The arrangement of art in this room compliments the architecture and provides a bright and airy space. The largest of the side galleries contains several dozen portraits of leading patriots and historically important figures from all 13 of the new states.

One smaller gallery focuses on the Second Bank itself, displaying portraits of Andrew Johnson and Nicholas Biddle, and offering insights into the debate over the role of a central bank in the United States. I couldn’t help but think that a better understanding of this historic debate would go a long way toward helping Americans come to terms with the discussion over the Federal Reserve and its handling of the current economic crisis.

Surprisingly enough, one of my favorite experiences at the Second Bank was my visit to the lower level of the building. The basement the museum's public toilets, but otherwise it was left largely unfinished by the structure’s latest restoration. The rough stone and brick archways make this part of building feel like the crypt of cathedral. Proper interior walkways have been added, indirect lighting has been installed, and the ‘underground’ has been used to display life-sized vignettes of street scenes that are based on period lithographs. The impact is surreal. It feels like walking through a dream of the past.

The Portrait Gallery in the Second Bank of the United States is located at 420 Chestnut Street in the heart of Philadelphia’s historic district. Wheelchair access is by means of a ramp on the west side of the building. Himself and Yours Truly highly recommend spending a couple of hours with this museum's important and interesting collection.

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Second Bank of the United States
420 Chestnut St
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19106
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