The writer Joseph Conrad once said that imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art, as well as life. But invention has some connections to art, too. The link between invention and art isn’t a rare one, necessarily-- so many of their aims are similar. They are about exploring the world, thinking creatively about sometimes vast terms or subjects that can be difficult to articulate. Artists and inventors often have the same childlike wonder and curiosity about the world, and it’s not all that odd to find that engineers, scientists, and inventors often dabbled in the arts as well. Exhibit A: of course, is Leonardo da Vinci, the biggest Renaissance Man of them all, who not only painted but also drew his own designs for hydraulic pumps, steam cannons, and the helicopter, just to name a few.
But everyone knows about Leonardo and his many, many talents. But how many know that the inventor of the telegraph and co-creator of Morse code was a successful artist, too? And crazily enough, one of his paintings in particular, foreshadowed his interest in communication tools, providing the impetus for revolutionizing communication--and, indeed, the world as we know it.
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those can be paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Art History is full of murder, intrigue, feisty women, rebellious men, crime, insanity, and so much more. And today, we’re uncovering the fascinating life of artist inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, and his masterpiece, the Gallery of the Louvre. Exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History, this is the ArtCurious Podcast. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
It always feels like coming home, to me, when we return to the Louvre as a subject of the ArtCurious Podcast, being that our very first episode focused on the one and only Mona Lisa, who is so lovingly housed there today. The Louvre is the world’s most visited museum, with millions upon millions of people visiting it every single year. And as tourism continues to slowly improve following the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks and as prices continue to fall on cheap international flights (God willing), the numbers of museum attendees will keep rising. How cool it is that museums like the Louvre or the Prado or the Hermitage-- which were once the private collections of monarchs and open to only a very select few-- are now open and available for one and all? Yes, sometimes the ticket price can be a little steep, but think about it-- you used to never see this stuff at all unless you were a member of the king’s coterie or an ultra-wealthy aristocrat (or usually both), and now, these collections are available for you to explore, share, and learn.
Of course, even if you were a 19th century wealthy art-lover, it didn’t necessarily use to be so simple, right? Say, for example, that you lived in England but wanted to visit the Hermitage. Well, it’s totally doable, but you’d have to cross the English channel via boat and then go overland all the way to St. Petersburg-- if you’re coming from London, that’s a distance of over 17 hundred miles, and of course you’d be doing that without the luxury of a car, since those weren’t invented yet. Or you could have an alternate route of sailing up the North Sea and through the Baltic Sea before arriving in St. Petersburg. Either way, you get my point-- the trip would be long and very arduous. You’d really, really have to want to see those works of art if they were open and available to you.
Okay, so let’s double down on this idea with some further geographical complications. How much more difficult would it have been, even for a wealthy American, to visit the great museums of Europe? Again, it’s totally possible and was most certainly done, but it wasn’t quick. In the 1830s, at the beginning of the transatlantic liner passenger era, it took about 18 days to cross from New York to Liverpool-- and then you’d have to get to mainland Europe to see the Louvre, for example.
Seriously, not something that everyone could afford to do. Even today, heading to Europe is off limits for lots of people.
But what if Europe-- and its great art-- could be brought to you?
Nowadays, with the ability to peruse so many of the world’s greatest art collections via their websites and galleries online, art has become truly democratic. We can enjoy images of any painting in a famous collection, print out a screen grab of it, and hang it on a wall. It’s ours to see, it’s ours to enjoy-- it’s ours to learn from, it’s ours to study in perpetuity. Oh, if only it was so easy for those poor 19th century folks.
That idea-- to communicate, share, and appreciate great works of art-- was something very close to the heart of one fascinating 19th century individual. We think of him as only an inventor today, but it turns out that Samuel F. B. Morse, he of Morse code and telegraph fame, actually started as an artist who cared very deeply about opening the world and connecting people across the globe. Makes total sense, right, considering his later creations?
Samuel Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, outside of Boston, to a staunch Calvinist family who placed great emphasis on the importance of education, particularly for their first son, Samuel. Samuel was lucky enough to have the benefit of that great education, attending first the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover before moving on to Yale University for his advanced training. His studies at Yale were eclectic-- religion, philosophy, math, and the quote unquote “science of horses.” But two things really caught his fancy while studying at Yale-- the first was electricity, which he learned about while attending lectures on the subject. The second was painting.
Morse found early on that he was actually rather good at painting. In fact, while at Yale he found he could support himself financially by painting miniature portraits on commission. After graduation, Morse upped the ante and created a showpiece which he titled Landing of the Pilgrims, which hangs today not far from Morse’s childhood home, in a meeting room of the Charlestown Branch Library. It was meant to be history painting -- that uppermost category of artistic creation specializing in a narrative worthy of admiration and emulation. The pilgrims, with their strong religious devotion and adherence to their morals, was a perfect subject for the fervent Calvinist Morse. Luckily for him, his picture paid off when it caught the eye of another artist named Washington Allston. Allston was impressed with Morse's painting, and gave him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity-- Morse could accompany Allston to England, where Allston was planning on meeting and working with the renowned and internationally famous painter Benjamin West. This was Morse’s chance-- his big post-collegiate break. And so, with the blessing of his father and also with his financial backing, Samuel Morse set sail with Washington Allston to England, where he would stay for four years. During those years, Morse worked extremely hard at perfecting his style and techniques, and did well enough that by the end of his first six months in England, he was allowed entrance to the prestigious Royal Academy to study painting.
Like most burgeoning artists, Morse found major inspiration by studying and imitating the works of the masters who came before him. His favorites, from most accounts, were Michelangelo and Raphael. In particular, his early works, such as his Dying Hercules, created in 1812 and now part of Yale University’s art collection, show a muscular figuration inspired by Michelangelo’s anatomical interpretations in the Sistine Chapel and elsewhere. What sets many of Morse’s works apart, though, from that of his European contemporaries is that his canvases frequently contained outright moralistic overtones-- statements on religious tenets and Morse’s own spiritual convictions. A work such as his Judgment of Jupiter, a successful and significant work done while Morse was still living in England, might look to one viewer to be a mythologically-inspired history painting in the mode of a Rubens; but for Morse, it was a moral directive about the wrongs of infidelity and the grace of God’s salvation. Heavy stuff for one painting of a Roman god, am I right? When Morse opted to return to America in 1815, he continued in this same vein, attempting to paint what he considered to be a quote “true” American scene that encapsulated life in the States--and that was a devotion to political and religious morals.
Not that all of Samuel Morse’s works over this next decade were so heavy and heady. Actually, this was a bit of a disappointment to Morse, who returned to the U.S. to find that his preferred style of painting grandiose and sometimes lugubrious subject matter was just a little too much for his fellow Americans. So in order to pursue a career as a full-time painter, and to be able to fully immerse himself in the art world and actually make a living, he had to take on some significant commissions for portraiture and private subjects. He traveled up and down the eastern seaboard, completing commissions for wealthy patrons from Charleston, South Carolina on up through Portsmouth, New Hampshire. And along the way, he landed some very big fish, too, like when he was requested to paint an official portrait of President James Monroe in 1820.
In short, Samuel F. B. Morse was doing well for himself. Really, really well-- even if he wasn’t creating mythological or religious figures all day. Instead, he painted notable images of former president John Adams and the Revolutionary hero, the Marquis de Lafayette. His works were known, admired, and requested. And Morse himself became lauded not only as a creator, but also as a teacher in his own right. In 1926, just ten years after his return to the U.S. from England, Morse became one of the founders of New York’s National Academy of Design, serving as its president not once, but twice-- first from 1826 until 1845-- nearly twenty years!-- and then returning to do the job again for one final year, from 1861 to 1862. If there was one thing that he never forgot, it was that education and striving to better one’s self is a lifelong commitment. And Morse’s own dedication to this tenet was reflected in a two-year sabbatical that he took, while acting president of the Academy, to return to Europe for an extended period of painting and study. From 1830 through 1832, he traveled throughout Italy, France, and Switzerland with the intention of returning to the Old Masters he so lovingly copied. That study, he felt, was integral to his development as an artist.
Perhaps the most formative stop that Morse made on his 1830s grand tour of Europe was his time spent in Paris. Like so many to come before and after him, Morse was floored by the sheer variety and availability of some of the best works of art in the entire world-- all housed within the Louvre’s many walls. Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Raphael, Nicholas Poussin, Titian, Rubens… practically any important master that a 19th century artist could want and hope to see. Morse spent hours upon hours wandering through the Louvre’s vast holdings, being particularly enthralled by the Salon Carré, or square salon, one of the most interesting exhibition spaces of the entire museum. While 21st century visitors can wander the Salon Carré today and see medieval and early Renaissance Italian paintings, in Morse’s day this gallery was used to house contemporary art. So upon Morse’s visit in the 1830s, he found this part of the Louvre to be… well, wanting, in a way. He loved the gallery itself, but wanted to see more of his beloved old masters therein.
And that’s when the first flash of inspiration struck.
As a working artist immersed in the latest studies of design and fine art, it is almost entirely certain that Samuel Morse knew of a style of paintings that had gained some popularity during the last half of the eighteenth century, featuring re-creations of famous museums or institutions as a way to publicize the vast wealth of a particular collection. These so-called "gallery paintings" were also popular as as a means of flaunting an artist’s skill. In a gallery painting, an artist might imitate the style of paintings by Leonardo and Rembrandt and Rubens-- and do it all in the same painting to reflect the works to be found in one particular collection. Whoa, potential buyers were meant to say. This artist can do it all. I’ve gotta get me some of his work. Artists like John Zoffany-- whose painting, the Tribuna of the Uffizi, now in the Royal Collection at Windsor, is the epitome of this display-- these artists had made names for themselves with these large-scale gallery pictures, filled not only with intricately copied images of iconic paintings, but also with finely dressed men (and the occasional woman, for eye-candy), all admiring and intently studying the works surrounding them.
Typical of these museum gallery paintings is the depiction of the salon-style hanging of works of art, also known by some as the quote “gentlemanly hang,” and what designers today might simply call a gallery hang. This was the side-by-side display of works of art, sometimes with only centimeters between frames, so that practically every bit of wall space in a particular room or gallery could be covered, floor to ceiling, with works of fine art. Truly, it was a way to dazzle one’s visitors, since you’d be cramming all of your masterpieces into one place. And for the upper echelons of European society, there was no need to hang works in any specific order of history, time period, or style, because, as art historian Carol Duncan notes in her book, Civilizing Rituals, gentlemen were just expected to have a general knowledge of this stuff. If you were a well-bred Londoner, it was just assumed you’d know your Corregio from your Caravaggio and you could thus enjoy a display of paintings regardless of how they were arranged.
But here’s the thing. This same absurd theory that assumed that the upper classes were the only ones who could really appreciate a good salon-style hang can also be spun to benefit those from the lower classes, too--- or at least those who had no access to the great museums or galleries of Europe. Why not create a single work of art showcasing a salon-style hang of the Louvre-- the greatest museum in the world-- and take it back to America to educate the masses? This was Samuel Morse’s great plan. And by golly, he set out to do it.
For six months, Morse lived in Paris, visiting the Louvre at every chance he had and scouting out works of art to incorporate into his masterpiece. The Salon Carré, he decided, would be the optimal space to imitate, but he preferred to incorporate old masters into it instead of imitating the contemporary French works on display there at the time. So, Morse essentially designed the Louvre Museum the way he wanted to see it-- on his canvas, he very specifically delineates nearly 40 works of art carefully selected over months of wanderings through various galleries of the museum. For Morse, this was a fantasy version of the museum, a greatest-hits-of-the-Louvre. It would be like having your very own guidebook to the best of the best, the works that you just couldn't miss if you were to visit the Louvre and spent an entire day tromping from room to room-- only here you could save yourself the pricey transatlantic passenger fare and see them all, in one place, and at one time. It would be, as art professor Paul Staiti once called it, Morse’s quote “greatest instrument of instruction,” and, according to historians, the only example of a gallery painting to be completed in America.
Let’s take a minute to discuss the painting itself, which Morse plainly called Gallery of the Louvre. This work is big-- I mean, it would have to be, to be able to clearly showcase 40 works of art in a way that would allow them to be rendered in an identifiable way. It measures six feet tall by nine feet wide, and shows some of the most iconic works of the Louvre’s collection, including Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana, Caravaggio’s Fortune Teller, and Raphael’s La Belle Jardinière. And oh yeah, there’s also this little canvas shoved in near the lower right center of the work, almost like an oversight. Yep, that’s the Mona Lisa, here only one among a few dozen works of note-- a reminder to us that miss Mona’s popularity wouldn't skyrocket for nearly 100 more years.
Among the paintings and the grand architectural surroundings are several figures, most of whom are identifiable as actual people, not archetypes. In the center of Gallery of the Louvre, we see a figure of a man leaning over the shoulder of a young woman, who is copying and sketching from the works around her. These figures are Samuel Morse himself, watching over the work of his daughter, Susan Walker Morse. In the left corner of the painting is James Fenimore Cooper, the American writer most famous for works such as Last of the Mohicans, who became a good friend of Samuel Morse after they met in the early 1820s and who visited his friend at the Louvre while Morse was in process of creating this painting. Next to Cooper is his wife and daughter, and in front of them, at far left, is a colleague of Morse’s named Richard Habersham, who is busy painting a landscape. Other figures have been speculated as additional American acquaintances of Morse’s-- sculptors and miniaturists, predominantly-- providing a little glimpse of the artist’s social ecosystem while living and working in Paris.
Morse worked for a very, very long time on this single painting, from late 1831 all the way up to August of 1832. He created a special scaffold that was movable so that he could carry it from gallery to gallery, allowing him to climb up in front of the works he wished to copy and get up close and personal with all the details. And apparently this special scaffold became something of a magnet for the curious, becoming a tourist attraction in its own right. After many months of selecting, calculating, and copying, Morse found himself at a minor stopping point, due to the Louvre’s choice to close its doors for the month of August, as it did every year at that time. Well, Morse thought, this is as good a time as ever to pack it all up and return to the United States. And in truth, he was probably thrilled to get back to the US to complete his painting, because he was planning on it being a huge sensation, not just in the art world, but in the greater country in general. Upon his return, he worked for almost a year on the final touches to his grand masterpiece before allowing it out into the wild. He showed it first in New York City in the fall of 1833, and did so once more in New Haven a few months later, in spring of 1834. The ultimate goal was inspiration-- he hoped that this vast display of the greatest artworks by the greatest artists would bring American art to new heights-- a Renaissance of our own would follow, with art students copying and studying from the best of the best, too. And it would also be a great inspiration for the moneyed upper classes of the U.S. to pony up and put together a great art museum of the European Model-- something that hadn’t really come to be yet in the relatively new country. All in all, Morse was hoping to communicate something big-- really, really big.
But did it pay off? Well, sadly, no. At least, not at the time. Gallery at the Louvre was praised by some critics and art connoisseurs, but the general reaction to the work of art wasn’t as positive as Morse would have liked. And this had nothing to do with his skill-- as the piece is very, very good and technically fascinating. It had more to do with the fact that the American public at the time just wanted something with a little more narrative- something a little less highbrow and intellectual, perhaps. Indeed, as Smithsonian Magazine reported in 2011, a playwright and actor named William Dunlap viewed the painting at its 1833 New York showing and dismissed it to the press, calling it quote “caviar,” meaning that he thought the work appealed to the upper classes who might already be interested in art, but that the general public just couldn’t get it, or have an appetite for it. In short, the exhibitions were disasters, and Morse’s hope for a great communal artistic epiphany fizzled out quickly.
It seems that the failure of the public reception of the Gallery of the Louvre was one of the events that changed the trajectory of Samuel Morse’s life-- and, indeed, possibly that of the nineteenth century and beyond. Only a year after the Gallery of the Louvre was displayed in the U.S., Morse apparently wanted to get it off his hands, and accepted a purchase offer for his work from a man named George Hyde Clark, who was related to Morse’s friend, James Fenimore Cooper. The agreed-upon price of sale was $1,300, which was about half of what Morse was hoping to sell it for at the time. Around that same time period, Morse learned that he lost a much-hoped-for commission, which would have allowed him to paint a historical scene in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building. Combined, these two failures devastated him, and he gave up painting altogether. As he wrote James Fenimore Cooper, quote, “Painting has been a smiling mistress to many, but she has been a cruel jilt to me. I did not abandon her, she abandoned me.”
It’s so hard not to feel sympathy for poor Samuel Morse. His dreams-- everything that he’d worked towards since his early college years-- had just fallen apart. But what could he do, right? There was really no other choice than to pick up and try something new, to make a new start of things. And so in 1834, he returned to a little thing he had been playing with in his art studio, a small side project that he’d been tinkering with on and off… an electromagnetic apparatus that would eventually become the world-changing invention of the telegraph. Ten years later, on May 24, 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse sent his first message from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. The communication and sharing of information and creating worldwide relations had always been of great interest to Morse-- he just achieved it in a different and bigger way than he had originally intended, and the world would never be the same.
And about that painting that caused so little fanfare in the 1830s? Well, when it was purchased in the 1990s for the Terra Foundation for American Art, it was sold at the highest price ever paid for an American artwork at that time. Today, it’s considered a veritable masterpiece. Now that’s a message I can get behind.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast, a proud member of the Modest Podcast Network. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal. Production assistance for the show is provided by Kaboonki Creative. K-A-B-Double O-N-K-I dot com.
If you liked this story and wish you could see Samuel Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre yourself, you’re in luck! The painting is on tour as the star of its very own special exhibition, and is traveling to museums all over the U.S. through mid-2018. Right now, the painting is on view at the spectacular Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The exhibition, "Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention," is on view now through Sunday, June 4, 2017. And there’s an extra tempting reason to go see the show-- the museum worked with Winston-Salem favorite, Camel City Goods, to design a custom t-shirt for the exhibition, available for purchase in their Museum store. You can find tickets and more information on the show and how to visit the museum at reynoldahouse.org/morse. That’s r-e-y-n-o-l-d-a house. Org, slash morse.
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