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.