Charles Willson Peale’s Exhumation of the Mastodon

Meet the Artists of Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture

a scene in a painting where they are lifting up a mastodon.

Charles Willson Peale, Exhumation of the Mastodon, ca. 1806–08, oil on canvas, 49 x 61 1/2 in., Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, Gift of Bertha White in memory of her husband, Harry White, BCLM-MA.5911.

About this Artwork

Within a month of Humboldt’s departure, Peale envisioned this ambitious work that would be simultaneously a history painting, a landscape, and a creation myth for a powerful United States. Here he painted the retrieval of the most complete mastodon skeleton found at that time from a waterlogged marl pit near Newburgh, New York, near the site of George Washington’s headquarters during the final months of the American Revolution. Peale’s ingenious pulley system allowed his team of workers to lower the water level to unearth and retrieve individual bones. The crowd of spectators included fifteen members of the artist’s family, making it clear that Peale saw this event, and his entire museum apparatus, as a family affair. The backdrop for this activity is a Hudson River valley landscape near the Catskills, complete with the threat of a coming storm, characteristic elements of many Hudson River school paintings. Exhumation of the Mastodon established the tone and the expectations for the setting, scope, and drama of a genre that would define the nation’s cultural ambitions.