Last week, I met a very special fossil. Pictured above is Charles Wilson Peale’s mastodon, which is currently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Exhumed in 1799 near the banks of the Hudson River and unveiled to the public on Christmas Eve, 1801, this was the very first mounted skeleton of a prehistoric animal ever exhibited in the United States. Preceding Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by six decades, the mastodon entered public discourse at a time when even the idea of extinction was still hotly debated. The mastodon proved to be a source of national pride for European Americans, demonstrating that North America’s natural wonders could rival Europe’s great architecture and rich history.
After Peale’s Philadelphia museum closed in 1848, the mastodon was sold and wound up at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany. There it remained for over 170 years, largely forgotten in its home country, until SAAM senior curator Eleanor Harvey had the idea to include it in a new exhibition.
Harvey’s exhibition isn’t about fossils, or even about Peale. Her subject is Alexander von Humboldt, a 19th-century naturalist who left a profound impact on the scholars, artists, and politicians of the young United States. Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture tracks the legacy of Humboldt’s brief but highly influential visit to America. During a six-week tour in 1804, Humboldt met with President Thomas Jefferson and other dignitaries, planting intellectual seeds that would shape America’s aspirational ideals for decades and centuries to come. From his vision of nature as an interconnected network to his advocacy for democracy, the abolition of slavery, and learning from Indigenous knowledge, Humboldt’s influence was wide-reaching*.
*I personally found the exhibition’s presentation of Humboldt’s influence on US policy a bit doe-eyed. While triumphs like the founding of the National Park Service and Smithsonian Institution can be traced to Humboldt’s legacy, it’s hard to argue that his social ideals had much practical effect in the 19th century.
An important stop on Humboldt’s American tour was Peale’s museum in Philadelphia. Humboldt dined with Peale’s family beneath the ribcage of the mounted mastodon, later citing the beast as a key example of America’s incredible natural heritage. For Humboldt, Peale, and Jefferson, the mastodon embodied the young nation’s great potential—if this land was home to creatures as mighty at the mastodon, then its future would have to be equally monumental.
To Harvey, the mastodon skeleton perfectly encapsulated the story she wanted to tell about Humboldt. She initially thought that shipping the mastodon from Germany for a temporary exhibition was a long shot, but her counterparts at the Landesmuseum were game. Curator Oliver Sandrock oversaw the process of preparing the mastodon for travel, which involved a deep cleaning, as well as breaking down the original 19th century armature into several pieces.
I spoke to Advait Jukar, a Research Associate with the National Museum of Natural History, about his involvement with the mastodon. He inspected the skeleton in early 2020, shortly after it arrived in Washington, DC. As a fossil elephant specialist, Jukar was able to determine that the mastodon was an adult male, and that about 50% of the mount was composed of real, partially mineralized bone. Fascinatingly, most of the reconstructed bones were carved from wood. This was the handiwork of Rembrandt Peale (Charles’ son), William Rush, and Moses Williams. Most of the wooden bones were carved in multiple pieces, which were locked together with nails and pegs. The craftsmanship is exquisite, and the joins are difficult to make out unless you stand quite close. The mandible is entirely wood, but the teeth are real. These teeth probably came from a different individual—one tooth on the right side didn’t fit properly and was inserted sideways!
The mastodon at SAAM differs from the original presentation at Peale’s museum in a few ways. The missing top of the skull was once modeled in papier-mâché, but this reconstruction was destroyed when the Landesmuseum was bombed during the second world war. It has since been remodeled in plaster. While the mastodon was never mounted with real tusks, the mount has traditionally sported strongly curved replica tusks, more reminiscent of a mammoth. While Rembrandt Peale published a pamphlet in 1803 suggesting that the mastodon’s tusks should be positioned downward, like a pair of predatory fangs, it’s unclear if the tusks on the skeleton were ever mounted this way. At SAAM, the mastodon correctly sports a pair of nearly straight replicated tusks, which curve gently upward.
Overall, the work of Peale, Rush, and Williams remains remarkably intact. Although it’s now lit by electric lights instead of oil lamps, this is the same beast that Humboldt encountered 220 years ago. Harvey even included a mouse in a small case at the mastodon’s feet, just as Peale did in Philadelphia. If anything, it’s remarkable how similar the mastodon mount looks to newer displays of fossil skeletons. Its creators pioneered an art form that has not changed enormously to this day.
While the mastodon is undeniably the star of the show, the exhibition also utilizes artworks from the SAAM collection, loans from other institutions, and three lengthy media presentations to tell Humboldt’s story. I was excited to see Peale’s The Artist in His Museum and Exhumation of the Mastodon reunited, and the collection of George Catlin’s portraits of Native Americans is impressive. However, I was most captivated by a media presentation exploring Frederic Church’s Heart of the Andes. While the original painting had to stay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the video—which can be seen online here—explores the details and historical context of the painting with visually arresting style. I’ve been critical in the past of art museums’ proclivity for opaque and unwelcoming interpretive styles, but this video is great and I hope to see more efforts like it.
Overall, I was delighted by the exhibition. Seeing a fossil in an art museum, interpreted as a cultural artifact, is extraordinary. Like Humboldt himself, the mastodon is an interception of art, nature, and culture, and I relished the opportunity to meet such an icon.
Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture runs through July 11, 2021.
Jukar, A. 2021. Pers. comm.
O’Connor, A. 2020. Mysteries of the first mastodon.
Semonin, P. 2000. American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity. New York, NY: New York University Press.