"My ambition is to be among those who shall revive the genius of Raphael, a Michelangelo, or a Titian . . . I wish to shine, not by a light borrowed from them, but to shine the brightest."
So wrote an aspiring young American artist named Samuel F. B. Morse in a letter home dated 1815. Fresh out of Yale, he had gone to England to study painting with Washington Allston and Benjamin West -- two masters of his day. Now 24, he was eager to return to America to challenge not only Michelangelo and Titian, but contemporaries Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull and Thomas Sully.
It was to be the overriding frustration of Morse's life that this goal was never achieved. Until his "Gallery of the Louvre" was sold this summer for a record-shattering $3.25 million -- the highest price ever paid for any American painting -- few remembered that the man who invented the telegraph and the Morse code had ever lifted brush to canvas.
Now a timely Morse retrospective, part of New York University's sesquicentennial celebrations, has opened at the university's Grey Gallery in Washington Square, Manhattan -- the very spot where Morse had established his painting, teaching and tinkering studio in 1835 as NYU's first professor of art. Three years later, he sent the first telegraph, and soon thereafter, at age 46, abandoned his painting career.
This show -- the largest ever (and the first since the Metropolitan Museum showed his work in 1932 to commemorate the invention of the telegraph) -- comes just in time to satisfy the newly aroused curiosity about Morse the painter: how good he was, whether history cheated him, and whether "Gallery of the Louvre" was worth $3.25 million.
Like Morse's art itself, this exhibition might have passed unnoticed but for the record-breaking painting, which has been loaned to the show by its new owner, Daniel Terra, founder of the Terra Museum of American Art in Evanston, Ill. The spotlight drawn to "The Louvre" -- to be shown at the National Gallery this winter -- now spills over to illuminate Morse's entire oeuvre. "The Louvre" turns out to be one of the least interesting works of art in the show.
Morse's great strength as a portraitist emerges here, and despite what was essentially a modest gift, he could, and frequently did, make honest, incisive, occasionally superb portraits -- a genre he loathed and only tolerated to keep bread upon his table. Starting with the spare early portrait of his Calvinist-preacher father and the stark, striking image of inventor Eli Whitney, Morse seems to have gained strength in the bolder, more loosely painted portraits of the colorfully dressed gentlewomen of Charleston, made during his most successful itinerant years.
Morse's most important commission--a dashing, full-length, life portrait of Lafayette for New York City Hall in 1825 (for which he was paid $1,000) -- marks the pinnacle of his career as portraitist, and led to several other commissions from the urban and rural gentry of New York state, including the 1829 portrait of Samuel Nelson, one of his crowning achievements. Morse broke no stylistic barriers, leaning instead on prevailing modes. But he painted with a cool intensity that could be riveting. As a portraitist, he deserves far more credit than he has had.
In what he really wanted to do, however -- didactic paintings on a heroic scale designed to teach and elevate (such as "Gallery of the Louvre") -- he seems to have had little more than dogged, plodding, back-breaking persistence to carry him through. Whatever its importance as an icon of American intellectual history, "The Louvre" is a stiff, lifeless bore, despite its high-minded mission of bringing art to the American masses. Though a tour de force of effort -- 38 of the Louvre's greatest masterpieces are reproduced in miniature -- it is the idea of this painting, not the painting itself, that is intriguing. He may hold the current record price, but Morse's talent does not come close to rivaling that of Frederick Church, Stuart, Sully or Trumbull.
It is something he ultimately seemed to realize himself, for three decades after that ambitious early letter to his father, Morse would write in despair to his friend, author James Fenimore Cooper: "Alas! my dear Sir, the very name of pictures produces a sadness of the heart I cannot describe. Painting has been a smiling mistress to many, but she has been a cruel jilt to me."
Morse's dream, for years, was to share in the painting of the Capitol rotunda in Washington, and his failure to obtain one of the commissions to decorate the dome's interior led him finally to lay down his brush. Though his art never made it, Morse himself was posthumously memorialized in Brumidi's mural on the dome -- but with his telegraph, not his easel, by his side.