A New Look: Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” is an interesting glimpse at a man best known for doing one thing, but who originally aspired to do something else entirely.
Samuel F. B. Morse (1791 – 1872) wanted to be a painter in the grand European tradition. After graduating from Yale in 1810, his work attracted the attention of artist Washington Allston, who asked Morse to travel and study with him in England. Morse did, and was admitted to the Royal Academy in 1811. While in England Morse’s work concentrated mainly on mythological themes, and he participated in many Academy exhibitions. He returned to the U.S. in 1815 to concentrate on his painting career, which was quite successful, and consisted mostly of portraiture, with patrons like former President John Adams, and the Marquis de Lafayette.
In 1832 Morse traveled to Europe, visiting, Italy, Switzerland and France. While in Paris he undertook the epic six-foot-by-nine-foot canvas, Gallery of the Louvre. Morse wanted to depict all of the Louvre’s masterworks in a single painting. It would give him the opportunity to try his hand at the styles of his idols Veronese, Raphael, and da Vinci, while at the same time showcasing them for an American audience. Morse wasn’t making a painting of what he actually saw in the museum, but assembling a “greatest hits” of European painting, set in the lofty Salon Carré. He finished the painting back home in the states in 1832, painting himself, front and center, instructing his daughter Susan, with his friend, the writer James Fenimore Cooper, and his family in the background.
Gallery of the Louvre was not the instructional success nor artistic tastemaker that Morse hoped it would be, and he became disillusioned with painting, and started to focus his attention and interest on more technical matters. If his painting had brought him the success he had desired he most likely would never have developed what we now call Morse code and the telegraph.
A New Look: Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre details the six-month conservation project to bring Morse’s masterwork back to its former glory. Morse used experimental techniques in his painting, which proved challenging for restorers Lance Mayer and Gay Myers, who describe how they went about repairing damage — and how they discovered that Morse himself had to make repairs on his painting, probably after rolling up the immense canvas and transporting it from Paris to New York.
Many conservators and painting specialists are featured in interviews in A New Look: Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre, providing technical expertise as well as biographical information on Morse. The DVD runs 30 minutes with no extras, but the DVD packaging contains a very detailed diagram of the painting and all of the 40 artists’ works included in it, which is helpful for viewers — who may feel they have taken a crash course in art history after seeing Morse’s mini-reproductions of Rembrandt, Titian, Van Dyck, Rubens, and so many other Old Masters — which is exactly what Morse was hoping to accomplish.