Samuel Morse as a young man wanted nothing more than to be an artist, an aspiration upon which his Puritan parents frowned. But they saw how much he wanted it, and so they finally acquiesced.
He traveled to Europe to study painting. In the early 19th century, the United States had no museums to speak of. Young artists went to Europe to learn how to paint and sculpt.
Morse improved tremendously while studying in London. He then established himself as a portrait painter in the United States, but he wanted to do more. So he returned to Europe and threw himself into studying Renaissance art. In Paris, Morse decided to create a giant painting that featured European masterpieces. He wanted to give art students in America a chance to study the Old Masters without having to travel to Europe.
The painting, called The Gallery of the Louvre, flopped. Critics liked it, but the public didn’t.
Fortunately for Samuel Morse, he had a side hustle.
He was born April 27, 1891, to Jedediah Morse and Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese Morse in Charlestown, Mass. His father, a stern Calvinist minister, had, like his son, another interest. Jedediah Morse was an avid geographer.
Known as Finley, Morse attended Phillips Academy in Andover and then, at 14, Yale College. At Yale, he studied religious philosophy, mathematics and the science of horses (really). He also studied electricity under Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day. He made enough money painting to support himself during college.
After college, his father apprenticed him to a bookstore owner, but he insisted he wanted to be an artist. Finally, his parents acquiesced. In 1811, they sent him to London to study painting with a noted American painter, Washington Allston.
Young Americans went to Europe in those days because they wanted to excel in their work. Oliver Wendell Holmes studied medicine at the Ecole de Medecine. Charles Sumner became an abolitionist after attending lectures with black students at the Sorbonne. James Fenimore Cooper, already a successful author, wrote several books in Paris and started writing about politics for newspapers.
“In this country, young in the arts, there are few means of improvement,” wrote Samuel Morse’s father in a letter of introduction for his son.
A Painter’s Life
In London, Morse improved rapidly under Allston’s tutelage. Upon his return to the United States he began to win portrait commissions. He painted John Adams, James Monroe, Eli Whitney and Noah Webster.
In 1818 he married Lucretia Pickering Walker in Concord, N.H. They moved to New Haven, but Morse led the itinerant life of a painter, chasing commissions in Washington, D.C., New York and Charleston, S.C. He eventually opened a studio in New York City.
In 1825 he was working in Washington, D.C., on a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, then visiting the United States. Lucretia gave birth to their third child, and then died of a heart attack in New Haven. Morse’s father sent him the news in a letter, but Lucretia had been buried for several days by the time he got the letter and returned to New Haven.
Soon thereafter, his father and mother both died. Grief-stricken, he left his children in the care of relatives and moved to Europe.
By 1831 he was living in Paris, where he buried himself in the Louvre.
Samuel Morse at the Louvre
The young Americans in Paris in the 1830s found the Louvre amazing. On Sundays, people from all walks of life crowded into the galleries.
Morse thought he’d do his countrymen a favor and introduce them to the masterpieces of European painting. He decided to paint the greatest works exhibited in the Louvre — all in one giant painting, six feet high by nine feet long.
Just selecting several dozen of the greatest paintings from the 1,250 hung on the museum’s walls was a task in itself. Morse chose four by Titian, three by Murillo and Van Dyke and two by Veronese, Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Guido Reni and Rubens. Leonardo da Vinci only got one — the Mona Lisa.
For months, Morse spent every day in the Louvre from 9 am to closing time at 4 pm. Most days people could find him on a scaffold in front of a masterpiece, sometimes 12 feet above the floor. Or they’d find him moving the scaffold around to another masterpiece. Eventually, the American painter became as much of an attraction as the paintings themselves.
His close friend and fellow expatriate, James Fenimore Cooper, came to the Louvre every day to visit him. At the time, Cooper reigned as the most popular American author due to his Leatherstocking tales.
Morse returned home in the fall of 1832.
He finished The Gallery of the Louvre in the United States, and then put it on exhibit in New York for an admission price of 25 cents.
Box Office Poison
The crowds didn’t exactly flock to see it.
Morse had high hopes for the sale of the painting, thinking he could get $2,500 for it. Cooper had hinted he’d buy it. Morse also thought the painting would help him clinch the commission to paint a mural in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
Cooper didn’t buy the painting, and John Trumbull got the commission for the Capitol Rotunda. Morse sold The Gallery of the Louvre for a disappointing $1,300 to a man named George Hyde Clarke, a neighbor of Cooper’s in Cooperstown, N.Y.
By 1837, perhaps burned out by his Louvre experience, Morse abandoned his art career. “Painting has been a smiling mistress to many, but she has been a cruel jilt to me,” he wrote to Cooper. “I have no wish to be remembered as a painter.”
Morse, in Paris, had found something else to interest him: the French telegraph outside of Paris.
In 1792, a French inventor named Claude Chappe invented a semaphore system to relay messages faster than post riders could. It included a tower within sight of another tower on top of a telegraph hill. On top of the tower were movable shutters – also called blades or paddles. An operator could move them into different positions to represent different letters of the alphabet.
When an operator in the tower saw the semaphore move on the neighboring hill, he would pick up the message and then send it to the next relay tower. The French used the system along the coast to warn of the approach of British warships. (Massachusetts also used that system for a while.)
Morse talked about the system to his friends in Paris, complaining about its slowness. He often mentioned his idea of communicating messages through an electric wire. Cooper later admitted he thought the idea “chimerical.”
Then on his voyage home aboard the Sully, Morse met Bostonian Charles T. Jackson. Jackson told him about European experiments in electromagnetism. That gave Morse the idea for an electromagnetic telegraph using a system of dots and dashes.
But that is another story. (Read it here.)
In 1982, the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago bought the painting for $1.325 million, the highest price paid for an American painting up to that time.
With thanks to David McCulloch, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.