On view in the American Art before 1900 galleries
Robert Walter Weir captured the mid-nineteenth-century fascination with science and devotion to domestic education in The Microscope. In the painting, Jacob Whitman Bailey, the pioneer of American microscopy and a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, instructs his sons and daughter, Maria, at right. At a time when education for girls focused on music, dance, and needlework, Bailey taught Maria science. The costumes of Maria and her father recall the period of Galileo, evoking the power of science and tempering rational inquiry with fanciful wonderment. As they became affordable tools for home teaching, microscopes took on religious overtones because they unveiled what many believed to be “the inner labyrinths of creation.” Weir’s portrayal of Bailey as both scientist and father exemplifies the Romantic belief in the sacred duty to educate children.