Samuel Morse's Other Masterpiece

The famous inventor's painting of Gallery of the Louvre is as much a fascinating work of art as a 19th century history lesson

Samuel F. B. Morse, Gallery of the Louvre, 1831-1833, oil on canvas, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection (© Yale University Art Gallery, 2011)

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Brownlee’s curatorial interest is in why Morse “reinstalled” the paintings he did, in the arrangement he did, in Gallery of the Louvre. He surmises that Morse’s selections were influenced by the tastes of both his teachers and his patrons. “This is the more speculative guess, but I am working on making the connection that he arranged these pictures because of the artistic lessons they provide, both individually and in relation to one another,” says Brownlee. As we stand in front of the painting, in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, the curator points out how pathways emerge for the viewer’s eye to follow. Francis I, who established the Louvre as a museum, gazes over at the gentleman in Flemish painter Van Dyck’s Portrait of a Man in Black. A pattern of light falls across the painting on a downward diagonal. And, in the bottom row of paintings, to the right of the doorway leading into the museum’s Grande Galerie, are two versions of Christ Carrying the Cross, one by a French painter and the other by an Italian. Brownlee suspects Morse put the two similar paintings close together so that their differences could be better seen and discussed.

“You start to think about gradation of colors, contrast, the relationship of part and whole, and suddenly this becomes the illustration of the points he is making in his lectures,” says Brownlee. It was in the mid-1830s, explains Brownlee, that Morse became a professor of painting at New York University. However, at this time he sold Gallery of the Louvre.

“It seems to me that this would be the thing that he’d want in his lecture hall,” says Brownlee. “So that is the real mystery to me.”

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