Sunday, March 7, 2010

American Renaissance Men

Lately, I have come across a number of items that fit the pattern of American Renaissance Men of the 19th Century.  When we think of the Renaissance Man, the usual image is of a 16th Century Italian like Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519). My dictionary defines a Renaissance Man as "a person with many talents and interests, especially in the humanities."  Notice that the definition does not limit the concept to one particular age.

So what made me think of this?  A few things.  I have been watching a Teaching Company course on the Masterworks of American Art (a great course, by the way).   I have also been keenly aware of many of the inventors who have helped to define our technological past.  I could not help but see that so many of them went beyond the boundaries of just one area of excellence.  Here are a few Renaissance Men to think about:

Samuel F.B. Morse (1791 - 1872):  Painter, but best-known as the inventor of the electric telegraph and his eponymous code. Morse painted portraits and historical subjects before turning to inventing.  He is said to have been motivated to invent the telegraph when he received a message too late for him to return home to be at his wife's side when she died.  This is an example of his portrait painting: Mrs. Daniel de Sassure Bacot (1830).

Robert Fulton (1765 - 1815):  Painter and inventor (or better, innovator) of the steamboat in America.  Fulton trained as an artist before he turned his attention to inventing things like submarines and armaments for naval warfare.  He then became obsessed with the steamboat and, along with Robert Livingston, introduced the first successful steamboat to the Hudson River in 1807.  One of Fulton's paintings of Susan Hayne Simmons is exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. A portrait of Fulton is shown below.

Charles Willson Peale (1741 - 1827):  Peale was one of the preeminent portrait painters of the Revolutionary War and Early American periods.  His portrait of George Washington at the Battle of Princeton (1779) is considered one of the best portraits of the General painted from life.

Peale was a naturalist and organized the first scientific expedition in the United States in 1801. He had many bird specimens and later bought the rights to excavate one of the first mastodons discovered in the North America.  He even helped design the equipment for the excavation.  The mastodon bones as well as his many other biological specimens were displayed at his Peale Museum in Philadelphia (at one time housed on the second floor of Independence Hall).  Peale was also interested in invention.  He obtained the patent rights for the physiognotrace in 1802 and helped to market it, including to Thomas Jefferson who bought one.

Peale, in this self-portrait of 1822, pulls back the curtain to his museum:

Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826):  Jefferson is the most broad-based of any of these men.  He was not only an attorney, but in addition to all of the public offices that he held, he was an architect, linguist, scientist, inventor, musician, bibliophile, horticulturalist, and founder of a university.  Jefferson found virtually everything in his world fascinating.  His self-designed home, Monticello, is pictured below.


Rembrandt Peale (1778 - 1860):  Son of Charles Willson Peale and well-know portrait artist of Presidents.  He also founded an arts and manufactures museum like his father, only in Baltimore.  His museum was lighted by gas lighting, which was very innovative for his time. He held an important patent in gas light technology and helped to found the Gas Light Company of Baltimore. His self-portrait of 1828 is shown below along with his portrait of Thomas Jefferson (1800).

The list just goes on.  The point is that the possibility that was embodied in our young country seemed to call forth the best and most diverse efforts from its talented citizens.  It did not seem the least strange that someone could be recognized as being a master in more than one area.  

In our current era of specialization and sub-specialization, it makes me wonder what synergies are being lost because our world almost demands intense focus in a single area?  Who are the Renaissance People of our day?  Surely, we have some.  I would welcome your suggestions.

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