The renowned painting Gallery of the Louvre (18311833) by American inventor Samuel F. B. Morse (17911872) has been recently conserved and is now on view in a focus exhibition at the National Gallery of Art
near the East Garden Court of the West Building. On loan from the Terra Foundation for American Art from June 25, 2011, through July 8, 2012, the painting depicts masterpieces from the Louvre's collection that Morse "reinstalled" in one of that museum's grandest galleries, the Salon Carré. A New Look: Samuel F. B. Morse's "Gallery of the Louvre" was previously on view at Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, from March 1 through June 12, 2011.
"The Gallery of the Louvre will not only enable visitors to learn more about the artistic accomplishments of Morse, best known for his inventions, and will further their understanding of his greatest painting and its historical importance," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "We are delighted to include it in our series of special installations focused on an iconic American work."
"It is a wonderful tribute to Morse's ambitious undertaking that his Gallery of the Louvre is on view at the National Gallery of Art in our nation's capital. Morse had an unwavering belief in the power of art to foster cultural pride, yet the masterpiece he completed nearly 200 years ago was the result of a transatlantic effort," stated Elizabeth Glassman, president and chief executive officer, Terra Foundation for American Art. "Painted in Paris and New York, Gallery of the Louvre truly embodies our international mission. The foundation is committed to sharing its distinguished collection in an effort to stimulate cross-cultural dialogue and exchange on American art. For more than one year, the painting will reside at the National Gallery of Art, linking its excellent collections of American and European masterworks."
Gallery of the Louvre
Morse envisioned the Salon Carré as a workshop where individuals study, sketch, and copy from an imagined assemblage of the Louvre's finest works, including paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Veronese, Caravaggio, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Watteau. Many of these artists are also represented on the Main Floor in the National Gallery of Art's own collection; their works are on view nearby in the West Building.
In 1830, during a brief visit to the Louvre, Morse may have conceived a plan to paint one large picture containing reduced versions of the masterpieces of the collection. Morse's Gallery had a number of precedents, including Johann Zoffany's famed The Tribuna of the Uffizi (17721778, Royal Collection, Windsor Castle). And Morse's idea of depicting the Salon Carré, one of the Louvre's grandest spaces, follows in the vein of Hubert Robert's painting Project for the Transformation of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre (1796, Louvre). But when Morse returned to the Louvre in 1831 to begin the project, he was disappointed to find the Salon Carré hung with contemporary French paintings, as depicted in Nicolas-Sébastien Maillot's Salon Carré du Louvre in 1831 (1831, Louvre). Morse therefore replaced them with masterpieces from the Louvre's Grande Galerie, and he featured its entrance in his final composition.
Executed in Paris and New York, the Gallery of the Louvre was intended to inspire and inform American audiences. Morse's selection of old master paintings was guided by the teachings of his mentors, the taste of his patrons, and his own ideals as an artist-instructor. These pictures also illustrate various approaches to the treatment of light, color, line, and compositiontopics that Morse addressed in his lectures at the National Academy of Design in New York.
Morse depicted himself at the center in the role of teacher, leaning over his daughter as she sketches. He also included friend and author James Fenimore Cooper at left with his wife and daughter. Nearby, the artist copying an unidentified landscape is thought to be Richard W. Habersham, one of Morse's colleagues in Paris. Exiting the gallery are a woman and little girl dressed in provincial costumes, suggesting the broad appeal of the Louvre and the educational benefits it afforded.
Morse exhibited the Gallery first in New York City during the fall of 1833 and again the following spring in New Haven. Highly praised by critics and a few connoisseurs, this type of picture with little narrative interest was rejected by the public. Crushed by the response, he sold the Gallery and its frame for $1,300 to George Hyde Clarke, a wealthy New York landowner and relative of Cooper's. Morse soon ceased painting altogether, moving on to his successful experiments with the daguerreotype, telegraph, and Morse code.
In an effort to educate his American audience, Morse published Descriptive Catalogue of the Pictures...from the Most Celebrated Masters, Copied into the "Gallery of the Louvre" in 1833, which included identifications of the works of art that he depicted. A brochure written by Peter John Brownlee, associate curator at the Terra Foundation, accompanies the exhibition and includes an updated version of Morse's key to the art, reflecting current scholarship. Although Morse never named the people represented in his painting, this key also includes possible identities for some of them.
The recent conservation of the painting has revealed that the technical construction of Morse's Gallery was no less complex than its composition. Following the example of his mentor Washington Allston, Morse experimented with various painting media and used the Titian-inspired technique of applying glazesthin layers of translucent mixtures of oil and pigmentto achieve the richness of coloring as well as the exquisite modeling of figures within the paintings depicted in the Gallery.
But Morse also mixed resinous materials with his pigments to approximate the deep tonal qualities of the old master paintings represented and added varnishes to expedite the drying process. Unfortunately, damage caused by these materials, combined with the stress of rolling the canvas for transport from Paris to New York, necessitated extensive repairs that the artist probably undertook himself prior to showing the work publicly. Thus, he was both the painting's creator and first conservator.
Samuel F. B. Morse (17911872)
Known today primarily for his role in the development of the telegraph, Samuel F. B. Morse began his career as a painter. Born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, he attended Yale University, graduated in 1810, and moved to Boston. There he became the private pupil and friend of the painter Washington Allston, who introduced him to a traditional program of study that encompassed drawing, anatomy, and art theory. With Allston's encouragement, Morse went to London, where he met Benjamin West and was accepted as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts. Morse's first major painting there, The Dying Hercules (18121813, Yale University Art Gallery), earned high praise.
Returning home in 1815, full of optimism and national pride, Morse confronted an artistic climate unfavorably disposed to history painting in the grand manner and was forced to turn to portrait painting for financial support. Throughout the late 1810s and 1820s, he painted portraits of clients in cities and towns along the Atlantic seaboard. His practice as a portraitist and his ambitions to advance a strong national art came together in his first great picture, The House of Representatives, which he toured as a single-painting exhibition to modest, though ultimately unsatisfying, critical and popular response.
In 1826, Morse was elected the first president of the National Academy of Design, a New York institution he had helped establish. Later that year, in a series of lectures he delivered at the New-York Athenaeum, he argued that "it is the principal aim of painting to excite the Imagination by visible reproduction of natural objects" and other phenomena observable in nature. To put this theory into practice, the painter used the tools of line and color. Skill in drawing and composition could be honed at institutions such as the National Academy, while excellence in the application of color came with copying the works of the old masters, which also provided much-needed income.
American artists such as West, John Singleton Copley, and John Trumbull had often supplemented their incomes by painting copies of works by Renaissance and baroque artists, usually as commissions for private patrons. Morse also executed copies on commission, fulfilling numerous requests for reproductions of works by Titian, Rubens, Poussin, Murillo, and others. Such works funded Morse's studies abroad between 1829 and 1832a trip that culminated in the monumental painting Gallery of the Louvre.