12. The Thigh Bone of an Elephant

Africa, 16th–17th century
Size: 96.5 cm long

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This large elephant femur is apparently the one shown in Charles Wilson Peale’s self-portrait in his museum, painted in 1822, and now in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. This is possible because Peale was unsuccessful at obtaining government funding for a permanent home for his collection, and after his death it was sold to the showmen P.T. Barnum and Moses Kimball, and subsequently dispersed. The bone itself could be from as early as the 16th century, according to a carbon-dating test.

Finding that he had a talent for painting, Peale studied under John Hesselius and John Singleton Copley, until his friends raised enough money for him to travel to England where he took instruction from Benjamin West for three years. On his return to America, he became involved in the War of Independence, and moved to Philadelphia, the capital of the nascent national government. He befriended and painted many of the historic figures of the time; his full-length portrait of Washington at Princeton, painted in 1779, sold at auction for $21.3 million in 2005, a record price for an American portrait.

Peale was a Renaissance man, since apart from painting he was an inventor, and expert in diverse fields, such as taxidermy, carpentry, optometry, dentistry and shoe-making. His greatest contribution was to natural history. He organized the first US scientific expedition in 1801, and collected botanical, biological and archaeological specimens on a colossal scale. He displayed the first mastodon skeleton, which he found in New York State, and by adopting Linnaean taxonomy he distinguished his collection and its purpose from the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ mentality of his predecessors. 

He had sixteen children with his first two wives, all of whom were named after painters he admired. Rembrandt became a famous portrait painter, and Titian a pioneer in photography. Peale’s slave, Moses Williams, was also trained in the arts while growing up in the Peale household, and later became a professional silhouette artist.

There is a strain of unusual enlightened curiosity embedded in Philadelphia. It is embodied today by the Mütter Museum, part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, since its collections were donated by Dr Thomas Dent Mütter in 1858, for biomedical research and education. Its weirdness, to those not accustomed, is summed up in an article in The New York Times in 2005:

‘There are jars of preserved human kidneys and livers, and a man’s skull so eaten away by tertiary syphilis that it looks like pounded rock. There are dried severed hands shiny as lacquered wood, showing their veins like leaves; a distended ovary larger than a soccer ball; spines and leg bones so twisted by rickets they’re painful just to see; the skeleton of a dwarf who stood 3 feet 6 inches [1.07 m] small, next to that of a giant who towered seven and a half feet. And “Jim and Joe,” the green-tinted corpse of a two-headed baby, sleeping in a bath of formaldehyde.’ The Mütter American Giant is the tallest skeleton on exhibit in North America. Among other curiosities: a malignant tumour removed from President Grover Cleveland's hard palate; the conjoined liver from the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker; a piece of tissue removed from the thorax of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln; a section of the brain of Charles J. Guiteau, the assassin of President James A. Garfield; the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection; slides of Albert Einstein’s brain.

Most intriguing is the Hyrtl Skull Collection, 139 skulls gathered by the Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl. While it is officially given that the purpose of the collection was to show the diversity of cranial anatomy in Europeans, its original purpose was to determine if human criminality could be determined by the shape of a person’s skull. When I visited the Museum over 40 years ago, each skull had a neat label giving the name of the criminal, with a description of the crime and the date it was committed.

Like the patch of skin on Mary Magdalene’s skull in the crypt of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, they have been discreetly removed. The presence of Marcel Duchamp’s extraordinary last work, Étants donnés, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, viewed through two peepholes in an old Spanish door, is a more recent manifestation of the strange spirit that hovers over Philadelphia.

Provenance: by repute, Charles Wilson Peale (1741–1827), Philadelphia

A radiocarbon dating measurement report from RCD Lockinge is available.

Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Gift of Mrs. Sarah Hanison (The Joseph Hanison, Jr. Collection)