Peale's Mammoth Picture

"Exhuming the First American Mastodon"

Exhumation of the Mastodon

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), Oil on canvas, 49 x 61½ inches
Courtesy Maryland Historical Society

Down in the pit, workmen are digging marl and hoisting it to ground level to be sifted for fossils. To deal with the continuous seepage into the pit, Peale constructed a special pumping system. It is a continuous conveyor belt of water buckets powered by a large turnspit, propelled by three men walking forward, in step, inside it. The water is conveyed off-site through a trough.

Peale peopled his scene with more than fifty anonymous workmen, plus nearly twenty of his family members and friends. In the foreground, ascending the ladder from the pit, is Mr. Masten, the owner of the farm where the dig was located. At ground level, under the left leg of the structure supporting the conveyor belt, stand Elizabeth DePeyster Peale, the artist's second wife (deceased at the time he painted the picture), and their son, Titian. Almost hidden behind the right leg of the structure are two of the artist's other sons, Linnaeus and Franklin. At the boys' left stands James Peale. At left in the background, wearing a blue coat and standing beside Peale's tent-like tool room, is his good friend, the poet and ornithologist Alexander Wilson (1766-1813). In the distant background is the army officer's tent where Peale slept. At right the artist, who has been displaying his painting of a full-scale mastodon leg, acknowledges one of the workmen in the pit who, coincidentally, has just discovered a leg bone of a mastodon!

More members of Peale's family are shown below in a closeup from Peale's famous "mammoth picture."1


Family Portrait

Detail from the above painting

Exhumation of a Mastadon detail

Courtesy Maryland Historical Society

At left, holding up his painting of the leg bones of a mastodon, is the artist, Charles Willson Peale. From his left are: Hannah Moore Peale, his third wife; Mrs. Rembrandt Peale (probably); her husband and his eldest son, Rembrandt. The two children are the artist's daughters, Sybilla Miriam Peale and Elizabeth DePeyster Peale. Behind them, hatted, stands CW's son Rubens, at whose left is another brother, Raphaelle, holding the roll of the painting. Peering over Rubens's left shoulder is Mrs. Raphaelle Peale. In the background, beneath an umbrella, Coleman Sellers is speaking to his wife, Sophonisba Peale Sellers, a daughter of the artist.


1. Charles Coleman Sellers, "Charles Willson Peale and 'The Mammoth Picture'," The Peale Museum Historical Series, Publication No. 7, February 1951 (Baltimore: Municipal Museum of the City of Baltimore, 1951).

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program