Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872), Gallery of the Louvre (1831–33), oil on canvas, 73 1/2 x 108 in. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago.
SAN MARINO, CA.– Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872), of Morse code fame, may be better known as an inventor, but he began his career as a painter, and his extraordinary six-by-nine-foot masterwork, Gallery of the Louvre, is on view at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens Jan. 24 through May 4, 2015. The presentation of the focused exhibition “Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention” at The Huntington marks the launch of a nine-venue tour of the United States organized by the Terra Foundation for American Art, from whose collection the painting is drawn.
Created between 1831 and 1833 in Paris and New York, Gallery of the Louvre reproduces famous works by van Dyck, Leonardo, Murillo, Poussin, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian, among others, arranged in an imagined installation in the Salon Carré at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Morse depicted 38 paintings, two sculptures, and numerous figures in a single composition. The monumental canvas has been seen as a painted treatise on artistic practice, positioning Morse (the centrally placed instructor in the work) as a symbolic link between European art of the past and America’s cultural future.
Morse was born in Charlestown, Mass., in 1791. The son of a Congregational minister and geographer, he attended Yale University (then Yale College), studying science, art, and other subjects. Supporting himself with portrait painting, he caught the attention of American painter Washington Allston, with whom he traveled to London in 1811, and joined a circle of American artists that include John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, and John Trumbull. Morse was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts, London, at that time led by Sir Joshua Reynolds. As he wrote to his parents, Morse aspired “to be among those who shall revive the splendor of the 15th century, to rival the genius of a Raphael, a Michel Angelo, or a Titian.”
After enjoying some success in London, Morse returned to the U.S. in 1815 and soon married and began a family. In 1822, he painted a precursor to Gallery of the Louvre, the seven-by-ten foot House of Representatives (now in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), for which he had to compile nearly 100 portraits of congressmen, delegates and other figures.
It was during a trip to Paris in September 1831 that Morse had the idea to craft another large-scale painting, this one of the Salon Carré in the Louvre, with carefully selected and arranged works from the Louvre’s collection. At the time, Morse was the founding president and professor of painting at the National Academy of Design in New York, and his interest in painting Gallery of the Louvre was clearly pedagogical. He hoped to bring back to Americans a teaching canvas depicting what he considered the major works of Europe.
The project required numerous calculations to scale and arrange the works, as well as the use of a camera obscura or similar pre-photographic optical device. Working furiously, Morse raced to finish the painting before the Louvre’s annual closure in August. He then rolled the canvas for travel and did not unroll it again until early 1833, back home on American soil, where he added finishing touches to the painting.
Gallery of the Louvre debuted publicly in Manhattan in the fall of 1833, along with a publication that included a description of the Louvre’s collections, a summary of the project, and an annotated key to the painting. Though it was displayed at a time when single-painting exhibitions were in vogue, and though the painting drew praise from critics and connoisseurs, it failed to attract a popular audience.
Morse’s development of the single-wire telegraph and Morse code began around the time of his disappointing Gallery of the Louvre exhibit, and he never again returned to painting.
Gallery of the Louvre in the 21st Century
In 2010, the Terra Foundation oversaw a six-month conservation treatment of Gallery of the Louvre that repaired damages that had occurred over time and yielded insight into Morse’s working methods. The painting’s conservation was documented in a 30-minute video produced by Sandpail Productions for the Terra Foundation. A shorter, six-minute version of the video is being shown in the exhibition at The Huntington.
From 2011 to 2013, Gallery of the Louvre was exhibited at the Yale University Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where it was the subject of scholarly investigation and dialogue. The new research generated from this analysis culminated in the exhibition “Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention,” as well as a book of the same title. Published by the Terra Foundation and distributed by Yale University Press, the book assembles a dozen essays by academics, curators, and conservators who focus on the painting’s visual components and its social and historical contexts.
“Gallery of the Louvre uniquely captures the work of a great painter who also held wide-ranging scientific and political interests and possessed the talents of a great inventor — a true American Renaissance man,” said Jessica Todd Smith, Virginia Steele Scott chief curator of American Art at The Huntington. “We are thrilled to be able to share this remarkable work in the Huntington context, where collections strengths include art of the United States as well as the history of science and technology.”
The exhibition’s presentation at The Huntington has been augmented by rare Morse-related historical materials from The Huntington’s library collections, including rare printed materials and unique manuscripts. In addition to the video, the installation includes an interactive opportunity for visitors to curate their own virtual gallery with miniature versions of highlights from The Huntington’s art collections.