The painting of Samuel F. B. Morse -- like much of early American art -- is essentially unknown in Europe. French aesthetics expert Jean-Philippe Antoine came across the famous telegrapher's art, and art theory, almost by accident: The old story of a volume picked up at random in a bookshop. But he was at once intrigued by the idea of someone who could cross over so thoroughly between painting and science.
The standard view of Morse is that his disappointments as an artist led him to lay down his brush and embrace technology instead. Antoine believes there might be another story to be told. He feels there is overlap between Morse's two identities -- Morse worked on the telegraph while he was painting and planned to return to painting even after telegraphy took off.
For Antoine, Morse's 1822 "House of Representatives" may have in it the germ of his ideas on science and technology, as well as providing a notably democratic vision of American identity. Here are a few hints the 7-by-11-foot canvas itself gives that this might be the case.
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The speaker's rostrum Although the decor of the new hall was carefully conceived to focus attention on the speaker's lavish rostrum, Morse has chosen to leave it empty, stuck off to one side. He's chosen, that is, to view the space from a nondescript, unemphatic spot on the sidelines, rather than from a full-frontal viewpoint that might help make its hierarchies clear. Morse seems to resist the kind of markers of status that the architects built into their structure.
Mismatched masonry High artistic imitation, according to the aesthetic theories Morse knew best, was about choosing to show only the choicest, even ideal, aspects of reality. In this grand painting, Morse chose to reject all that in favor of what you might call a more egalitarian eye. If a wall is made of mismatched stone, that's what he shows -- whether or not it does honor to his monumental picture's prestigious subject. Morse's motto might as well be "What I see is what you get." (That wall still looks the same.)
The Declaration of Independence Even the Declaration of Independence doesn't get special play in Morse's thoroughly democratic view of things. Congress chose to have a copy of that document elaborately framed and given pride of place in its new meeting hall, but in this painting it's just another incidental object, taken in almost by accident by Morse's equal-opportunity vision.
The ceiling The rigor of this painting's mathematical perspective, which Morse said gave him endless trouble, is another sign of his commitment to a scientific take on things. For Morse, a wide-angle view of a complicated space like this can't be eyeballed. It has to be calculated and constructed. It can't just look right, more or less. It has to be right.
The visitors' gallery In the visitors' gallery, Morse has chosen to depict his father, the Rev. Jedidiah Morse (the older man at left) along with the Pawnee chief Petalasharo. The elder Morse was in Washington to submit a report on Indian affairs, and the native man was part of an Indian delegation to the president. The man to the right of Jedidiah is the great Yale chemist Benjamin Silliman, one of Morse's teachers. Morse gives as much prominence to figures who are of personal interest to him as to any of the picture's great politicos. In Morse's democratic view, the personal is truly the political.
Marble pillar Morse is so keen on showing things "as they are" that he's willing to risk illegibility. The peculiar strip of pattern down the left edge of the picture is supposed to depict the side of a speckled marble pillar. You can figure out that it's the mate to one across the hall. To someone standing before the painting, however, it looks as much like a strange patch of camouflage or a strip pulled from some kind of Jackson Pollock abstraction. Usually, the frontmost object in a painted scene, known as a repoussoir, is meant to give an added sense of depth to all the space that sits behind it. In Morse's "House," his too-faithfully depicted length of marble has the opposite effect. It looks like arbitrary, abstract decoration stuck onto the painting's surface; it draws attention to the true flatness of the canvas and to the artifice involved in giving it the look of depth.
Morse near and far Normally, there's a contrast between viewing a painting from a distance, which lets you take in its subject matter, and viewing it close up, which lets you take in the artful brushwork that constructs that subject matter. In Morse's giant work, it's the subject itself that seems to change with viewing distance: From afar, the painting, as one critic described it, is really a portrait of a work of architecture; up close, it breaks down into an almost haphazard accumulation of faces and objects. We're invited to scan them with a naturalist's eye for incidental detail. Yet Morse's brush strokes aren't simply invisible, showing off the kind of laboriously polished, blended surface some of his peers sought credit for. His brush strokes are visible, but they're not meant to matter. They're undistinguished little strokes -- sort of like a telegraph message, built from dots and dashes that themselves have no significance. Morse's brush strokes carry his message; they aren't part of it.
The chandelier The most important object in the painting was one of the miracles of the Industrial Revolution: an Argand chandelier, whose oil lamps could each shine as brightly as 10 candles. It's shown as strong enough, all by itself, to light up the entire sprawling scene. The lamp represents the ideal of progress through technology that Morse, with his telegraph, went on to epitomize. Morse went out of his way to make his picture's lighting prominent: He chose to depict a rare evening session of the House rather than a more typical daytime meeting.
The doorkeeper Here, raised high in the center of a grand painting of one of the grandest ceremonial spaces in the new nation is . . . the doorkeeper who lights the chandelier. If this isn't a celebration of American equality, what is? There's only one other figure at the lamplighter's height, looking down on the arena of assembled big shots: It's the observer of the scene -- Morse the painter, in the first place, and then, looking through his eyes, every later viewer of the painting. That lamplighter, at the center of the scene, stands in for all of us, at the service of our government but also raised above it. Morse was no leveling populist, but his picture argues for a democratic harmony in which all people find a place.
Communication Antoine suggests that communication is the crucial human activity depicted in Morse's painting. Figures sort documents, pass them around, read them, discuss them or contemplate the written speeches they're about to give. Normally, an image of a great deliberative body might have focused on a moment of grand public oratory. Here, it's replaced by a more splintered, personalized, disseminated model of communication. It's a model that almost foreshadows telegraphy. Morse's painting focuses on human communication and aims for a clean, crisp, entirely accurate transmission -- between artist and viewer -- of raw information about the subject. It may not have been up to doing such a job, but his telegraph was.
Heating in the House Morse takes care to show off the new hall's advanced heating system -- vents in the floor and fancy stoves against the walls. Note the winter wraps and shawls abandoned by most of the members of the House, who have discovered that their hightech meeting room makes such extra dress unnecessary.
The mail clerks The newfangled chandelier's only serious competition comes from the lamp two mail clerks are using to sort their masters' papers. It lets Morse show off his skill at calculating cast shadows and other tricky light effects. This kind of emphatic glow was first introduced to highlight the nighttime birth of Christ, but it is used by Morse to turn the spotlight on a couple of congressional runners. It's an "epiphany of democracy," in Antoine's words.
The clock face It's 6:13 p.m. Instead of depicting the heroic moment viewers would have expected of a standard "history painting" -- Washington Crossing the Delaware, the Crowning of Napoleon, the Signing of the Declaration of Independence -- Morse gives us an almost random moment in the daily workings of government. It's perhaps another sign of a democracy's preference for process over prowess. The "action" in this room will begin at 6:30, when the legislature starts to meet, but Morse depicts an almost empty interval before that happens. Yet Morse doesn't merely leave his picture's timing vague. He takes care to specify the precise instant at which all this nothing happens -- he lets us know that it's not 6:12 or 6:14, or a quarter past the hour or some generic "dusk," but exactly 6:13. Such "scientific," even superfluous, precision in timing, unrelated to any special import of the moment being clocked, was relatively new in Morse's day. He himself went on to take precision to another level when his telegraphy made it possible, and even necessary, to synchronize timepieces kept miles apart.
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U.S. Capitol building Morse's painting depicts the Capitol's old Hall of the House, now known as National Statuary Hall.
Samuel F. B. Morse's "House of Representatives" is on view through Jan. 2 in "Encouraging American Genius," an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW. Call 202-639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org.
To hear an excerpt from a work of sound art by Jean-Philippe Antoine, visit www.washingtonpost.com/museums.