National Gallery of Art NGA, Washington
Known today primarily as the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) began his career as a painter. Born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, he attended Yale University, graduated in 1810, and moved to Boston. There he became the private pupil and friend of the painter Washington Allston, who introduced him to a traditional program of study that encompassed drawing, anatomy, and art theory.
With Allston’s encouragement, Morse went to London, where he met Benjamin West and was accepted as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts. Morse’s first major painting there, The Dying Hercules (1812-1813, Yale University Art Gallery), earned high praise. Returning home in 1815, full of optimism and national pride, Morse confronted an artistic climate unfavorably disposed to history painting in the grand manner and was forced to turn to portrait painting for financial support. Throughout the late 1810s and 1820s, he painted portraits of clients in cities and towns along the Atlantic seaboard.
His practice as a portraitist and his ambitions to advance a strong national art came together in his first great picture, The House of Representatives, which he toured as a single-painting exhibition to modest, though ultimately unsatisfying, critical and popular acclaim.
In January 1826, Morse was elected the first president of the National Academy of Design, a New York institution he had helped establish. That March and April in a series of lectures he delivered at the New-York Athenaeum, he argued that “it is the principal aim of painting to excite the Imagination by visible reproduction of natural objects” and other phenomena observable in nature.1 To put this theory into practice, the painter used the tools of line and color.
Skill in drawing and composition could be honed at institutions such as the National Academy, while excellence in the application of color came with copying the works of the old masters, which also provided much-needed income. American artists such as West, John Singleton Copley, and John Trumbull had often supplemented their incomes by painting copies of works by Renaissance and baroque artists, usually as commissions for private patrons.
Morse, too, executed copies on commission, fulfilling numerous requests for reproductions of works by Titian, Rubens, Poussin, Murillo, and others.
Such works funded Morse’s studies abroad between 1829-1832, a trip that culminated in the monumental painting Gallery of the Louvre.
Passing through Paris en route to Italy in January 1830, Morse made a brief visit to the Louvre. He may then have conceived a plan to paint one large picture containing reduced versions of the masterpieces of the collection. Morse’s Gallery had a number of precedents, including Johann Zoffany’s famed The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-1778, Royal Collection, Windsor Castle), which Morse had seen exhibited in London in 1814. Morse’s idea of depicting the Salon Carré, one of the Louvre’s grandest spaces, likewise follows in the vein of Hubert Robert’s Project for the Transformation of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, painted three decades before. In a fashion similar to both earlier and contemporary views of the salon, Morse’s Gallery depicts the space as a workshop in which an array of individuals study, sketch, and copy from an imagined assemblage of the Louvre’s finest works. Returning to the Louvre in 1831 to begin the project, Morse was disappointed to find the Salon Carré hung with contemporary French paintings, as depicted in Nicolas-Sébastien Maillot’s Salon Carré du Louvre in 1831. Morse therefore replaced them with masterpieces from the Louvre’s Grande Galerie, and he featured its entrance in his final composition.
Morse’s selection of old master paintings was guided, in some measure, by the teachings of his mentors, the taste of his patrons, and his own pedagogical aims. For instance, Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana, a personal favorite of Allston’s that exemplified for many artists the most sophisticated and successful arrangement of colors, is given pride of place on the wall at left, though shown at an oblique angle. Titian, another of Allston’s idols, is represented by four paintings in Morse’s Gallery.
Two are quite prominent: Supper at Emmaus is above the gallery’s open door, and Entombment hangs just above eye level at center right. Several artists on Morse’s list of commissions are also represented by works in the Gallery and reflect the generally canonical taste of his American patrons and peers. Finally, this array of pictures illustrates various approaches to the treatment of light, color, line, and composition that Morse addressed in his lectures at the academy.
Working from small copies, such as that of Titian’s 1539 Portrait of Francis I, or painting images directly into his large canvas, Morse completed most of the composition in Paris. He finished the figures and the frames for the individual works within his Gallery sometime after returning to New York in late 1832. The artist’s good friend James Fenimore Cooper appears at left in the painting with his wife and daughter. Nearby, the artist copying an unidentified landscape is thought to be Richard W. Habersham, one of Morse’s colleagues in Paris. Morse included himself at the center in the role of teacher. He leans over a woman sketching who has been identified as his daughter, Susan Walker Morse. Just as the earlier House of Representatives is a confluence of his portrait practice and his grander, nationalistic ambitions, Gallery of the Louvre harmonizes Morse’s activities as a copyist with his larger goals as artist and lecturer.
The recent conservation of the painting has revealed that the technical construction of Morse’s Gallery was no less complex than its composition. Following the example of Allston, Morse experimented with various painting media and used the Titian-inspired technique of applying glazes - thin layers of translucent mixtures of oil and pigment - to achieve the richness of coloring as well as the exquisite modeling of figures within the paintings depicted in the Gallery. But Morse also mixed resinous materials with his pigments to approximate the deep tonal qualities of the old master paintings represented and added varnishes to expedite the drying process. Unfortunately, damages caused by these materials, combined with the stresses of rolling the canvas for transport from Paris to New York, necessitated extensive repairs that the artist probably undertook himself prior to showing the work publicly. Thus, he was both the painting’s creator and first conservator.
Morse exhibited the Gallery first in New York City during the fall of 1833 and again the following spring in New Haven. Highly praised by critics and a few connoisseurs, this type of picture with little narrative interest was rejected by the public. Crushed by the response, he sold the Gallery and its frame for $1,300 to George Hyde Clarke, a wealthy New York landowner and relative of Cooper’s. Morse soon ceased painting altogether, moving on to his successful experiments with the daguerreotype and the electromagnetic telegraph.
By Peter John Brownlee, associate curator, Terra Foundation for American Art, and produced by the department of exhibition programs and the publishing office at the National Gallery of Art.Text copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse - Inventore e pittore (Charlestown, Mass., 1791 - Poughkeepsie, New York, 1872). Laureatosi alla Yale University nel 1810, andò l'anno seguente in Inghilterra ove studiò pittura; tornato in America lavorò come pittore di storia e fu soprattutto apprezzato ritrattista. Il suo interesse si rivolse presto anche alla tecnica. Di ritorno da un lungo viaggio in Europa (1829-32), concepì la prima idea di un telegrafo elettrico, che realizzò nel 1835, esponendolo alla Columbia University. Nel marzo 1843 il governo lo aiutò con sovvenzioni cosicché M., l'anno dopo, poté trasmettere il primo messaggio telegrafico da Washington a Baltimora. Introdusse la dagherrotipia in America e posò anche il primo cavo telegrafico sottomarino nel porto di New York (1842). Fu anche prof. di storia naturale nello Yale College di New Haven. [Enciclopedia Italiana G. Treccani]