The Eyes

The Eyes

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Samuel F.B. Morse and Gallery of the Louvre

Gallery of the Louvre | 1831-33
Samuel F.B. Morse
Oil on Canvas | 6' x 9'
Terra Foundation of American Art | Chicago

Samuel F.B. Morse began his career as an artist with a goal of fame as an historical painter. He was fascinated with large paintings depicting significant events throughout history. Longing to build a legacy in a young country yet to discover and invent itself and realize its artistic greatness, Morse went to London to study. There he created the six by eight foot historical canvas, The Dying Hercules, selected to hang in an exhibition at the Royal Academy. For the first time, Morse saw his work praised. Yet much to his dismay, he was forced to paint portraits for financial support. He announced in a letter to his parents dated May 2, 1814, “I cannot be happy unless I am pursuing the intellectual branch of the art. Portraits have none of it, landscape has some of it, but history has it wholly.” In 1822, he put his talent for portraiture to work in his depiction of the House of Representatives, containing more than eighty portraits of Congressman, Supreme Court judges, journalists, janitors, even including his father as a spectator in the gallery. His attempt to show the grand ideal and orderly process of democracy at work was not received as Morse had hoped and he returned to portraiture.

Within a short period, Morse suffered the death of his wife, father, and mother, forcing him to contemplate his own mortality and artistic legacy. He soon departed for Paris to pursue what he conceived to be his greatest work. Morse set his sights on a grand painting of the Salon Carré in the Louvre. Upon his inspection of the famous room, he was disappointed to find it filled with the work of contemporary artists. Morse decided to "rehang" his version of the Salon with the paintings he so admired from the Renaissance, bringing what he deemed to be the greatest art back to America for all to admire.

Morse spent an entire year, every single day, copying in miniature the paintings of Rubens, Titian, Van Dyck, and others, even including da Vinci's Mona Lisa to be shown in his version of the Salon CarrĂ©. As he undertook this Herculean task, Paris was in the grips of horror of a cholera epidemic that claimed more than 19,000 lives in six months. Morse was terrified and hurried to complete his task and return home to America. In all, he copied 38 paintings by 22 masters for inclusion. Gallery of the Louvre incorporates ten figures, some friends, acquaintances, and symbolic images, with the most conspicuous being Morse himself, center stage, leaning over the shoulder of a young art student. Also, rendered in the painting is friend and fellow American in Paris, author James Fenimore Cooper ("Last of the Mohicans") who joined Morse at the Louvre daily to encourage his endeavor.

By the summer of 1833, Morse had completed the grand painting and put it on public view in New York for an admission charge of 25 cents. The public showed little interest and it was purchased for $1,300, far less than the $2,500 Morse had hoped to command for this work of art. In 1982, it was purchased for $3,250,000, the highest sum ever paid until then for a work by an American artist.

Years earlier, at a gathering of the National Academy of the Arts and Design, while awarding prizes to young artists, he told them that if they expected a painter's life to be one of ease and pleasure, they were greatly mistaken. It was a "life of severe and perpetual toil." They must expect "continual obstacles and discouragements, and be prepared to encounter illiberality, neglect, obscurity, and poverty." Only an "intense and inextinguishable love of art" could sustain them to bear up, and if they did not feel this love, they should "turn while yet they might to other pursuits."

While the Gallery of the Louvre failed to be understood by its American audience, Morse ultimately achieved his quest to join “in the constellation of genius” by another means of international communication, the telegraph and Morse Code.