Samuel Morse’s painting ‘Gallery of the Louvre’ on display at National Gallery

Samuel Morse, the man credited with inventing the telegraph, was also a painter, and not a bad one for an American of his day. His work was flat and conventional, but he had considerable success as a portraitist, served as president of the National Academy of Design and in 1816 produced a passable likeness of Founding Father John Adams. His paintings, like most art produced in the United States until late in the 19th century, remind one of Samuel Johnson’s quip about dogs who can walk on their back legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Like most American artists who cared about quality, Morse spent time in Europe learning his craft, and in 1831 he began painting a monumental canvas depicting a grand room in Paris’s Louvre museum filled almost from floor to ceiling with famous masterpieces. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre,” newly restored and on loan to the National Gallery of Art until July 8, 2012, can be seen in a hallway space in the museum’s West Wing.

It isn’t particularly original, nor is it well done. For today’s audiences, images of museum interiors — thus paintings of paintings — have a curious, self-referential, post-modern buzz to them. But they were not uncommon. As the modern museum emerged from the wreckage of 18th-century aristocracy, picture galleries became an important new public space, and various artists produced images of galleries such as the one Morse painted in the early 1830s.

Morse’s figures, which include a prominent self-portrait placed front and center, and renderings of his friend and fellow expat in Paris, James Fenimore Cooper (with his family), are clumsy and lifeless. He also reproduced, in miniature, 38 paintings from the Louvre’s collection, but while his renderings are recognizable, they are uneven in quality. Morse’s version of the Mona Lisa shows not a sultry woman with an enigmatic smile, but a rather stupid-looking lady with a generic grin and beady eyes.

And yet there’s a wealth of information about museums and America in this grand canvas. When Morse first discovered the room known as the Salon Carre, he found it full of what were then contemporary French paintings — among them Gericault’s grisly but thrilling “Raft of the Medusa,” which depicts the desperate survivors of an 1816 shipwreck, naked, dying and reduced to cannibalism. He didn’t like what he saw, so he created his own, imagined version of the Salon Carre, full of his own favorite works from the Louvre, all of them canonical and predictable choices. He then arranged his friends in front of them. Some of them stand and admire the art while others sit at easels, with palettes and brushes, dutifully producing simulacra of the great European masters.

If Morse assembled his own fantasy gallery, he attended accurately to certain historical details that contemporary museum-goers will likely find surprising. Most obvious is the dense hanging scheme, a clutter of paintings jammed in next to one another, which was the standard way of exhibiting paintings well into the 19th century. In 1846, John Ruskin articulated a growing sentiment against the practice: “Every gallery should be long enough to admit of its whole collection being hung in one line, side by side.” But it would take decades, and a major philosophical change in ideas about art, before museums widely adopted the current practice of presenting paintings at eye level, with lots of space between them.

Morse has also carefully rendered the walls in a deep red color. In this case, the Louvre was slightly ahead of the general practice. In the 18th century, many picture galleries opted for green walls. In the 19th century, red would become standard. At the time, and according to popular theories about color, red was seen as the most sympathetic background for classic paintings. Today, of course, museum walls are often white or cream or a light neutral tone, and again somewhat antiseptic.

Morse’s painting of the Louvre, however, differs from other similar images in ways that mark it as distinctly American. Although he has filled the room with Americans who were in Paris during his years there, it also includes a woman with a strange peaked cap, holding the hand of a child. Both figures face away from the viewer. David McCullough, whose recently published “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris” includes an entire chapter devoted to the story of Morse and his “Gallery of the Louvre,” identifies the woman’s headgear as “the traditional peaked cap of the women of Brittany,” and sees the two figures as proof of Morse’s egalitarian ideals. “She and the child serve,” writes McCullough, “as reminders that the museum and its riches are there not for artists and connoisseurs only, but for people of all kinds and ages.”

Perhaps. But they are also seen from behind, faceless, heading through a large open door. They are, in fact, leaving the stage, which Morse has filled with Americans. The old world passes away as the New World comes on strong. It’s worth performing a little experiment with this detail of the painting: Imagine a contemporary image of Washington’s National Gallery, filled with Chinese artists and intellectuals, making themselves very much at home, while two vaguely “American”-looking figures traipse quietly off the set. Suddenly, the nationalism of Morse’s painting takes on a darker flavor: This is a painting about cultural appropriation and destiny.

But it is a pernicious picture, and it gets at the heart of a problematic relationship to art that has lingered, in this country, to our own time. Examine other paintings of galleries and museums from the same period, and you see something clearly missing from Morse’s canvas: Dispute, conflict, argument, discussion. In Pietro Antonio Martini’s image of the Salon of 1785 (a grand, usually annual conclave of art that defined social life in Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries), the gallery is full of throngs of people who move about and look and point. It’s clear that they are in animated conversation about the art. Even the sycophants in a 1787 engraving of the Prince of Wales visiting a picture gallery in London are deeply engaged with the paintings.

The art historian Thomas Crow describes what is obvious from these images: Art galleries, especially the Salon in France, were “a public sphere of discussion, debate and free exchange.”

Not for Morse, who has not only assembled his own hanging of favorite paintings but also placed his Americans passively before them. They don’t dispute, they copy. They don’t argue, they imitate. They not only submit to Morse’s personal judgment about the paintings, they submit to the art itself. There is a strange mix of aggression and reverence in this fantasy. Morse is both an iconoclast (willing to rearrange the Louvre according to his desires) and a slavish traditionalist, genuflecting before the grand history of European art. As in art, so, too, in politics: We fetishize both personal freedom and authority, and oscillate uncertainly, often violently, between these two poles of behavior.

Morse, of course, wasn’t just painting a room in the Louvre. His work was meant to be didactic, a comprehensive lesson in taste, history and art. He brought it back to America and displayed it in part to give his benighted American countrymen a vision of great art and civilization. Unfortunately, they didn’t respond as he had hoped. It was a modest critical success, although that may have had a lot to do with its size and detail, which must have wowed American critics whose knowledge of art was circumscribed by their geographic isolation. But Morse also hoped to charge admission to see it — 25 cents a head — and make money from the eager masses. They didn’t materialize.

Morse was embittered by the failure and turned away from painting. Only today, when the arts are seen as somehow entirely different from other forms of knowledge, does it seem surprising that a man trained as an artist had success helping to develop the telegraph and its code of dots and dashes. Painters observe, just as scientists do, and invention is based on close observation of human needs. Despite competing claims to the discovery and development of electronic telegraphy, Morse would fight vigorously for the distinction of being the sole inventor of the technology, rather like he placed himself centerstage in his painting of the Louvre.

His masterpiece, stored in a university basement for years, was purchased in 1982 by American collector Daniel Terra for $3.25 million, at the time the most ever paid for an American work. Terra said of the pricey acquisition: “You couldn’t have bought the publicity for that much.”

Terra, who died in 1996, was a prodigious fundraiser for Ronald Reagan, and that bought him a position as cultural ambassador. When Terra died, his family enlisted former Alaska senator Ted Stevens to get a special waiver for Terra to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, despite no evidence that Terra had done military service. That set off a storm of controversy. But it was a fitting postscript to the story of Morse’s painting, which is about cultural aspiration, appropriation and borrowed grandeur.

“A New Look at Samuel F. B. Morse’s ‘Gallery of the Louvre’ ” is on view at the National Gallery of Art through July 8, 2012, in the West Wing. Admission is free. For more information visit www.nga.gov/exhibitions/morseinfo.shtm.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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