August 16, 2012


A selection of curiosities at the Wadsworth Atheneum

How many of us have collections of shells, or rocks, or other interesting things we've picked up on our travels? or of salt shakers, or quilts, or teapots. This urge is partly an aesthetic one, a desire to see things we think beautiful, or strange, or interesting, gathered together in a pleasing way. It is also evidence of curiosity, of a desire to have the wide world near us, perhaps to understand it better. I began to think about this when I visited the Wadsworth Atheneum, where they had a small gallery dedicated to the "Cabinet of Curiosities", a Renaissance room full of objects of art and nature. They were known in the German as Kunstkammer (art room) or Wunderkammer (wonder room), and are precursors to museums.

Nautilus Snai, Jeremias Ritter, German, ca. 1630; nautilus shell, silver gilt, 

This charming piece, a snail shell fashioned into a golden steed, was one of the examples of an art/nature hybrid that might have been part of the Wunderkammer. 

Charles Wilson Peale, The Artist in His Museum, 1822; oil on canvas, 103 3/4 x 79 7/8 in.

Cabinets of curiosities were established, as Wikipedia informs me, not only by aristocrats, but also by merchants and people involved in science. One of those here in the United States was Charles Wilson Peale, an artist also interested in natural history. He opened a museum in Philadelphia in 1784; one of his thousands of bird specimens, a wild turkey, is at the lower left, and mastodon bones are at the right. He had worked to unearth and mount a mastodon in 1800, which we can see behind the curtain.

My much more modest collections are throughout my house, such as odds and ends gathered in this wire basket: rocks picked up in Australia and Europe, colorful antique marbles, a railroad spike from the Australian desert, small sculpted coins by the artist Beriah Wall.

And on a shelf, a conversation between a delicate bird skull and two brightly colored ceramic salt shakers. It's good to be reminded of the world's variety of wonders as we go about our daily lives.


  1. Delightful post, Altoon...thanks.

  2. I loved this post Altoon.. thank you!Wonderful objects you have collected..I would love to go to Australia one day..thanks for showing us,and the bird skull is amazing... I suspect many artists have these collections!I have mine also ;-)!

  3. Great post Altoon. My treasures are so elemental to my studio experience. Every rock, handpicked from a hillside or a beach. Richard Tuttle once said, our eyes can be held in rapture by any object, for hours. Such an abundance of visual feasting. Thanks for this.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Terry and slowmuse. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that this post resonates with so many people; I suppose we're all collectors of some sort at heart.

  5. I love this post! I have so many little collections, and a few larger ones (such as my quilts). Great to see this through your eyes ~

  6. I call them treasures and mine too are in groups. The first was an old, small lead sailboat I bought in a junk shop for a nickel when I was freshman in college. I was struck by the juxtaposition of sailing an lead.

  7. Thanks for joining in with your stories, Ravenna and Clair. Ravenna, I know you make art out of some of your collections; Clair, I love the lead sailboat.

  8. Wonderful reminder of the power and pleasure in grouping one's collections. :-)