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Samuel Morse consolidated Louvre masterpieces in an imaginary gallery. (Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre / Macbeth Gallery Records, Archives of American Art, SI; Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection)

Samuel Morse's Reversal of Fortune

It wasn't until after he failed as an artist that Morse revolutionized communications by inventing the telegraph

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In November 1829, a 38-year-old American artist, Samuel F. B. Morse, set sail on a 3,000-mile, 26-day voyage from New York, bound for Paris. He intended to realize the ambition recorded on his passport: his occupation, Morse stated, was “historical painter.”

Already esteemed as a portraitist, Morse, who had honed his artistic skills since his college years at Yale, had demonstrated an ability to take on large, challenging subjects in 1822, when he completed a 7- by 11-foot canvas depicting the House of Representatives in session, a subject never before attempted. An interlude in Paris, Morse insisted, was crucial: “My education as a painter,” he wrote, “is incomplete without it.”

In Paris, Morse set himself a daunting challenge. By September 1831, visitors to the Louvre observed a curious sight in the high-ceilinged chambers. Perched on a tall, movable scaffold of his own contrivance, Morse was completing preliminary studies, outlining 38 paintings hung at various heights on the museum walls—landscapes, religious subjects and portraits, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, as well as works by masters including Titian, Veronese and Rubens.

Working on a 6- by 9-foot canvas, Morse would execute an interior view of a chamber in the Louvre, a space containing his scaled-down survey of works from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Not even the threat of a cholera outbreak slowed his pace.

On October 6, 1832, Morse embarked for New York, his unfinished painting, Gallery of the Louvre, stowed securely below deck. The “splendid and valuable” work, he wrote his brothers, was nearing completion. When Morse unveiled the result of his labors on August 9, 1833, in New York City, however, his hopes for achieving fame and fortune were dashed. The painting commanded only $1,300; he had set the asking price at $2,500.

Today, the newly restored work is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. through July 8, 2012.

In the six years since Morse had left Paris, he had known seemingly endless struggles and disappointments. He was now 47, his hair turning gray. He remained a widower and still felt the loss of his wife, Lucretia, who had died in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1825, three weeks after the birth of their second son. “You cannot know the depth of the wound that was inflicted when I was deprived of your dear mother,” he wrote to his eldest daughter, Susan, “nor in how many ways that wound has been kept open.” He welcomed the prospect of marrying again, but halfhearted attempts at courtship had come to nothing. Moreover, to his extreme embarrassment, he was living on the edge of poverty.

A new position as professor of art at New York University, secured in 1832, provided some financial help, as well as studio space in the tower of the university’s new building on Washington Square, where Morse worked, slept and ate his meals, carrying in his groceries after dark so no one would suspect the straits he was in. His two boys, meanwhile, were being cared for by his brother Sidney. Susan was in school in New England.

For a long time Morse had hoped to be chosen to paint a historic scene for the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington. It would be the fulfillment of all his aspirations as a history painter, and would bring him a fee of $10,000. He openly applied for the honor in letters to members of Congress, including Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams. Four large panels had been set aside in the Rotunda for such works. In 1834, in remarks on the floor of the House he later regretted, Adams had questioned whether American artists were equal to the task. A devoted friend of Morse, and fellow expatriate in Paris during the early 1830s, novelist James Fenimore Cooper, responded to Adams in a letter to the New York Evening Post. Cooper insisted that the new Capitol was destined to be a “historical edifice” and must therefore be a showplace for American art. With the question left unresolved, Morse could only wait and hope.

That same year, 1834, to the dismay of many, Morse had joined in the Nativist movement, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic outcry sharply on the rise in New York and in much of the country. Like others, he saw the American way of life threatened with ruination by the hordes of immigrant poor from Ireland, Germany and Italy, bringing with them their ignorance and their “Romish” religion. In Morse’s own birthplace, Charlestown, Massachusetts, an angry mob had sacked and burned an Ursuline convent.

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