On Christmas Day 1817, Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885), the seventeen-year-old son of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), noted painter and founder of the nation’s first museum, left Philadelphia with zoologist George Ord (1781-1866) and sailed to Savannah, Georgia.

portrait of Titian Ramsay Peale by Charles Wilson Peale
Portrait of Titian Ramsay Peale by Charles Wilson Peale, via Wikimedia Commons

There, the two men joined the wealthy geologist William Maclure (1763-1840) and naturalist Thomas Say (1787-1834), whose pioneering work on American insects “the self-styled Dr. T. R. Peale” had begun to illustrate. All four, including young Titian, were officers of the newly organized Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. As Academy president, Maclure generously supported fieldwork, although exact scientific expectations for the trip to Florida remain unclear.1

According to Say, Maclure delayed until December 12, 1817, to invite him to follow in “the track of Bartram,” Say’s great-uncle William Bartram (1739-1823) whose well-known travels into East Florida had been published in 1791.2 Despite insights provided by Say’s correspondence at the Academy and Titian’s few letters home (now owned by the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia), there appears to be no full narrative account of their trip other than Peale’s description.3

This trip to Florida established directions that Titian’s long and uneven career would follow. As an explorer, he accompanied Major Stephen H. Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819-20, collected birds again in Florida in 1824, traveled from Maine to Colombia from 1829-1832, and joined the first United States Exploring Expedition to the South Seas in 1838-42.

self portrait of Charles Wilson Peale in his museum
The Artist in His Museum, self portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, via Wikimedia Commons

During intervals spent in Philadelphia following 1821, the young man managed his father’s Philadelphia Museum, drew insects for Thomas Say’s publications, and on the pages of the Academy’s Journal, introduced the process of lithography to North American scientific illustration. In addition, with the patronage of young Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803-1857), Titian had by age of twenty-four established himself as the foremost bird illustrator in the United States prior to John James Audubon’s debut.

George Ord’s jealous protection of the ornithological press in Philadelphia forced Audubon to seek a publisher abroad and allowed Titian to continue successful work with Bonaparte on the handsome 4-volume American Ornithology, or the Natural History of Birds Inhabiting the United States and not Given by Wilson (Philadelphia, 1825), a work which included birds from Titian’s Florida explorations and western travels.4 In the next decade, Peale designed coins for the United States mint and printed the first and only part of his sumptuous work, Lepidoptera Americana: or Original Pictures of the Moths and Butterflies of North America (Philadelphia, 1833).

peale photographTitian’s career took a sharp turn during the 1840s. The family museum failed in Philadelphia, and the collections, including those made by Titian in Florida, were purchased by P. T. Barnum at auction.5 Titian’s wife and his daughter named Florida died, and he was unable to complete his official report for the U.S. Exploring Expedition.6

In 1849, the naturalist started a new life as examiner at the Patent Office in Washington, D. C., and he developed new hobbies-photography and oil painting.7 Although he continued to collect insects, Peale never regained the professional standing as a naturalist which he had enjoyed prior to 1842. After long government service, he died in Philadelphia in 1885. The American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York, owns a collection of his papers.