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.