Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

In 1836, eminent Ameri­can artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872) painted a por­trait of William Wagner (1796-1885), Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist, which had, until last year, remained in private hands. More than a century after its creation, the likeness has virtually returned “home” to the Wagner Free Institute of Science, founded by Wagn­er and his wife Louisa Bin­ney Wagner (1814-1898) in Philadelphia in the mid­-nineteenth century.

Incorporated in 1855, the Wagner Free Institute of Science is a rare survivor – a natural history museum and educational institution that remains virtually unchanged since its founding. The Institute’s free public education courses on science constitute the oldest program in the nation devoted to free adult education. The building that houses the Institute, erected in 1865, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. It houses an extensive natural history collection begun by Wagner in the early nineteenth century and expanded in the 1880s by Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), a leading paleontolo­gist and researcher. The collection includes skeletons, fossils, shells, minerals, and mounted animals.

William Wagner received an academic education and intended to study medicine, but his parents discouraged him and so he entered the counting room of Philadelphia financier Stephen Girard. In 1816, he served as an assistant supercar­go on a trading voyage that lasted nearly two years. During the voyage, Wagner assembled large collections of shells, plants, and fossils, which formed the beginnings of his museum. He subsequently engaged in various business enterprises, and retired by the age of forty-four in 1840. After living abroad for two years, from 1841 to 1842, he returned to Philadelphia and began assembling his specimens. Five years later he began delivering scientific lectures, informally giving rise to what would become the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

Thomas Sully, an artist known for his portraits of the financially and socially prominent, as well as for his historical scenes, executed likenesses of, among others, Thomas Jefferson, in 1821, Andrew Jackson, in 1825, and Queen Vic­toria, in 1838. Known to have made about three thousand portraits, he was a popular artist of his day, second only to Gilbert Stuart. He studied with Benjamin West in England and returned to Philadelphia in 1808, where he embarked on an illustrious career of nearly fifty years as the city’s leading portraitist.

Sully’s portrait of Wagner surfaced in the galleries of a Philadelphia art dealer in late 2001. Although the Wagner Free Institute of Science holds other images of its founder, mostly portrait prints and photographs largely from the last two decades of his life, the Sully painting is the earliest known likeness of Wagner and the only to depict him in color. When Sully completed the portrait, his sitter was forty years old and actively building the collection that would form the nucleus of the institution that bears his name. The Sully portrait of Wagner will be unveiled during a gala public ceremony on Saturday, October 4, at the Institute. Historian and author Michael J. Lewis, pro­fessor at William College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, will give a talk entitled “Thomas Sully’s Philadel­phia” in conjunction with the unveiling.

To learn more about the Institute, its holdings, and educational programs, write: Wagner Free Institute of Science, 1700 West Montgomery Ave., Philadel­phia, PA 19121; telephone (215) 763-6529; or visit the Wagner Free Institute of Science website. Admission to the museum gal­leries is free.