The Second Bank of the United States

This week I had the pleasure to be able to tour the Second Bank of the United States with the curator of the collection Karie Diethorn, who is a part of the National park service, as well as Erin Pauwels, an Art History professor at Temple University. The second Bank of the United States was built in a Greek Revival style as made obvious due to the four large marble columns and facade. The bank spent very little of its life as a bank however, it was only in operation for 20 years. The bank was originally chartered to deal with the substantial debt that the U.S had accumulated after the war of 1812.  But with the rise of anti-bank sentiment in the 1830s, the Second Bank became the target of Andrew Jackson. Jackson vetoed the bill when the bank came up for re-chartering and its accounts were redistributed to state banks. The bank is currently a historic museum under the care of the National Park Service.

The exhibits are predominantly made up of portrait art. The main exhibition space is broken down into areas of interest; law, education, business etc. Each area has a collection of portraits that connect to the overarching ideas. On our tour, we had the opportunity to analyze the two paintings in this main exhibit space. These two paintings were both painted by Thomas Peale. One featured Robert Morris, while the other was of his wife Mary Morris.  The most interesting parts of these pieces, however, was not their subjects but their backgrounds. Both pieces had fictitious landscapes behind them that were intended to signal their devotion to enlightenment ideas. This contrasted with the portraits that were displayed in the next room, also by Peale, which had plain backgrounds. The portraits in the second room were designed to draw the eye only to the prominent figure that appears in the piece. These pieces were displayed in Peale’s museum, compared to the other pieces that were done for commissions. These paintings were designed to hang high on the wall to symbol the high status (moral or political) of the subjects. The Second Bank makes an attempt to recreate the aesthetic of what a display case in Peale’s museum might have looked like while still making it obvious that the cases are not original. The distinction between modern and historical was an impressive feature of the space. While the museum could have attempted to make modern recreations of the display cases with the natural specimens, the modern display pieces allow the viewer to understand the concept without overshadowing the portraits. I was disappointed by the lack of diversity in the exhibits, however. This was to be expected considering this was a museum focused primarily on portraiture art, only the wealthy can get their portraits painted. That compounded with the back that Peale’s museum required an admission fee that was well beyond the means of working-class individuals, the lower classes of people did not have the same access to such luxuries.

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