My favorite site in Independence Park (Tobey says “yawn”) is the (free) Portrait Gallery. Housed in the former Second Bank of the United States (designed to look like the Parthenon in Athens), it has over 150 portraits of Revolution-era military officers, politicians, scientists, explorers – all the people that show up in history books.
George Washington’s face is familiar (he’s on the $1), but it’s nice to put a face to the other characters: his wife Martha (the wealthy society widow who married George and spent most winters with him during the war – including Valley Forge),
John Adams (our brilliant but grumpy 2nd president),
James Madison (Father of the Constitution, but “smaller than a ½ a bar of soap”),
Meriwether Lewis (famous explorer whose mysterious death is still debated),
Alexander Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury who died in a duel with Aaron Burr),
The core of the collection comes from the museum of Philadelphia painter, Charles Wilson Peale (shown in this self-portrait on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts):
Mr. Peale’s Museum, CONTAINING the portraits of Illustrious Personages, distinguished in the late Revolution of America, and other Paintings–Also, a Collection of preserved Beasts, Birds, Fish, Reptiles, Insects, Fossils, Minerals, Petrifactions, and other curious Objects, natural and artificial.
—The Pennsylvania Packet, 1788
One of the few surviving specimens from the museum, this Bald Eagle (originally a Peale family pet) is on display in the portrait gallery.
As a follower of the enlightenment philosophers and friend of the founding fathers, Peal believed that educating the American public and increasing their understanding of the natural world would cultivate a more enlightened citizenry and advance America’s prestige around the world. He was assisted by his family, including sons: Rembrandt, Rubens, Benjamin Franklin, and Titian (sense a theme…?). For a time, his museum was housed on the second floor of Independence Hall.
For more information on the Peale Family, you can visit the exhibit “Curious Revolutionaries” at the American Philosophical Society, located next to Independence Hall (through December 30,2017)