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
On May 24, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse wowed the American public when he sent the biblical message “What hath God wrought?” by telegraph, from the Supreme Court room in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. to Baltimore. Seventeen years later, telegraph lines spanned the entire country. Then, by 1866, a cable was laid across the Atlantic Ocean. But lesser known is Morse’s earlier attempt at connecting North America and Europe—through his art, in a painting called Gallery of the Louvre.
Before Morse was an inventor, he was an artist. A Massachusetts native, he graduated from Yale in 1810 and went on to study art, first in Boston under the painter Washington Allston and then in London at the Royal Academy of Arts. He received some acclaim for an 8- by 6-foot painting called Dying Hercules, depicting the muscular mythical hero, back arched and hand grasping the poisoned robe that killed him. But when Morse returned to the United States in 1815, Americans did not have a taste for such large history paintings. He considered Americans’ taste, actually, to be quite unrefined. At the time, there were few art museums in the country. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art wouldn’t open until 1872 and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1876.) And, since most Americans did not travel to Europe, their exposure to art by Old Master painters, such as Titian, Rubens, da Vinci and Veronese, was limited to hack copies.
According to Paul Staiti, an art professor at Mount Holyoke College, Morse took it upon himself to solve this problem. The artist made it his agenda, in the 1820s and ‘’30s, to elevate Americans’ understanding and appreciation for art. He helped found the National Academy of Design in New York City, devoted to educating artists, and lectured on how painting was a fine art on par with architecture, landscape gardening, poetry and music. But Gallery of the Louvre was perhaps his most grandiose “instrument of instruction,” as Staiti once called it.
The massive, 6- by 9-foot painting depicts 38 works, including da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana, by 28 European painters from the 16th to 18th centuries, all hung in the Salon Carré, a famous hall in the Louvre. Gallery of the Louvre is considered an example of the Kunstkammer tradition of paintings, which shows people studying a collection of artwork hanging in a known architectural space. It is suspected that Morse would have been familiar with the German painter Johann Zoffany’s The Tribuna of the Uffizi, from the 1770s, in which art connoisseurs and diplomats are shown admiring works by Raphael, Reni, Rubens, Titian and others, in the Tribuna room of the Uffizi in Florence.
Since the Salon Carré was filled with French contemporary paintings when Morse was at the Louvre in 1831 and 1832, he would have “reinstalled” canonical masterpieces from other halls of the museum onto his canvas. His idea was to gather paintings that demonstrated what great art was and that offered important lessons should art students study and copy them. “By presenting Americans with a dazzling showcase of great art he would be doing in miniature what a domestic art museum, were there one, should do,” writes Staiti in his essay “Samuel F. B. Morse and the Search for the Grand Style.” In the foreground of Gallery of the Louvre, a figure, known to be Morse, looks over the shoulder of his daughter, Susan Walker Morse, who is sketching. Writer James Fenimore Cooper is in the left corner of the painting with his daughter and wife, and, in the front left, Morse’s colleague Richard Habersham, brush in hand, is copying a landscape.
The painting fell short of Morse’s intentions though. He showed it in New York City and New Haven, Connecticut, with little fanfare. Many attribute the public’s disinterest to the painting’s lack of narrative. American playwright and actor William Dunlap called the painting “caviar,” in that it appealed to artists and intellectuals, who understood its purpose, but did not whet the less discerning appetite of the masses.
George Hyde Clark, a relative of Cooper’s, purchased the painting in 1834 for $1,300, about half of Morse’s asking price. It reportedly was passed through a few family hands and, in the 1880s, wound up at Syracuse University, where it stayed for nearly a century. In 1982, the Chicago-based Terra Foundation for American Art bought Gallery of the Louvre for $3.25 million, the highest sum paid up until that point for a work by an American painter.
On loan from the Terra Foundation, Gallery of the Louvre is now on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through July 8, 2012. The exhibition, “A New Look: Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre,” previously on view at Yale University Art Gallery, marks the first time the painting has been shown since it underwent a six-month conservation treatment, beginning last summer.
Independent conservators Lance Mayer and Gay Myers, based in New London, Connecticut, set their sights on better understanding how Morse created his composition and on correcting any damage. Tiny pinholes found in the four corners of Christ Carrying the Cross, attributed to Veronese and hanging just above the figure of Morse, suggest that perhaps Morse pinned a sketch there in trying to piece the puzzle of interlocking paintings together. The Terra Foundation actually owns the only known preliminary study done for the painting—a small, 8- by 10-inch panel copy of Titian’s Portrait of Francis I, King of France. Peter John Brownlee, associate curator at the Terra Foundation, believes that as Morse’s deadline approached (in 1832, the Louvre closed for an August holiday), he switched gears though, setting up a tall scaffold beside the originals, which he copied directly on to his large canvas.
To look into how they might reduce the painting’s yellowish tint, the conservators took some pigment samples, or microscopic flecks of the paint layer, and found that Morse had mixed varnish into his oil paints. “There are a couple of reasons for doing this,” says Brownlee. “One is very practical. Varnish helps your pigments dry faster. But it is also used to recreate the aged, weathered, sometimes dark, historiated look of the Old Master paintings.” Morse’s experimental technique, which some say alludes to his second career as an inventor, made it impossible for the conservators to use a solvent to remove the varnish as there was no way to do so without removing the paint as well. Instead, they removed a thin layer of grime and fixed the botched efforts of previous treatments. The 17th century French painter Claude Lorrain’s Sunset at the Harbor, hanging center right, for example, had been over-cleaned in the past. Its brightness made it look more like a sunrise than a sunset, so Mayer and Myers toned it back. “Overall, you have what I call a more legible, readable picture,” says Brownlee.
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.”