He Could Have Been a Contender . . .

An Xiao’s concept for the 1stfans Twitter Art Feed employs the language of Morse code—one of many instances in which science and art have crossed paths. Relatively few people know that the great American inventor—and the inventor of Morse code—Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872) initially set out to become a great American artist. Throughout the early decades of the 19th century, Morse shared with his contemporary Rembrandt Peale a near missionary zeal for the promotion of grand, moralizing art in America—big, serious paintings whose ideal forms and lofty messages could improve the individual and society as a whole. A distinct lack of demand for such art in the young Republic forced both artists to rely for their livings on more mundane portrait work (for which there was a healthy market), and on scientific and business pursuits.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse. Unidentified photographer. Daguerreotype. Image ID: aaa_macbgall_4798. Smithsonian Institution via The Commons on Flickr.

Morse was born into a rigorously intellectual and religious family in Charlestown, Massachusetts; his father was a renowned Congregationalist minister and author. Morse was educated at Phillips Academy (in Andover, Massachusetts) and at Yale University. He began his formal artistic training in 1810 under the prominent Boston artist Washington Allston, who fostered Morse’s interest in ambitious subjects drawn from history or the bible. When Morse accompanied Allston to London the following year to begin his training at the Royal Academy School, he was motivated by an intense nationalism to excel for the cause of American art. Four years later, when his parents recalled him to Boston, he began work as a fledgling portraitist only to find himself in direct competition with the aging but highly sought Gilbert Stuart (best-know for his portraits of George Washington). Morse resourcefully tutored himself in Stuart’s well-documented techniques and gradually achieved some success. When his too-factual portrait of John Adams was poorly received, however, he temporarily set painting aside in order to work on his invention of a flexible piston fire pump, and to contemplate a career in the ministry.

Morse thus established a thirty-year pattern of alternating work as an artist with his scientific pursuits, often switching gears in reaction to the cool reception of his art. Both efforts were aided by his 1821 move to New Haven, where he maintained close ties with the Yale scientist Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864). The grand artistic success for which Morse hoped, however, remained elusive. When his remarkable scene of history in the making, The House of Representatives, 1822-23 (The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) was poorly received during a costly exhibition tour the following year, he turned his attention to the design of a marble-carving machine. Morse enjoyed the high point of his painting career in 1824, after a move to New York, when he won the highly contested commission to paint a grand portrait of General Lafayette for the City of New York, 1825-26 (Art Commission, City of New York). He won further notice in 1826 for his role in the formation of the National Academy of Design, and his appointment as its first president.

Disappointment was in the offing again, however, when in 1829 he launched a nearly-twenty-year lobbying effort to win one of the remaining monumental painting commissions for the Capitol Rotunda in Washington. During a year of preparatory work in Europe, he began the large painting Gallery of the Louvre, 1832-33 (Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago), whose subsequent failure to boost Morse’s reputation led him to abandon all but portraiture, and to focus on his new duties as the first professor of art at New York University. The indefatigable Morse also undertook his first unsuccessful bid for the office of mayor of New York, campaigning on a platform of rabid nativism. It was the ultimate awarding of the Capitol Rotunda commission to his colleague Henry Inman in 1837 that proved the last straw for Morse the artist. He threatened to resign his National Academy presidency, gave up his ongoing portrait work, and turned his energies concertedly to his invention of the telegraph with which he had begun to experiment in 1832.

After a successful demonstration of the telegraph in 1838, Morse returned to Europe and there met the pioneer photographer Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), from whom he learned the daguerreotype technique and derived the inspiration to open a photographic studio on his return to New York. He made a second unsuccessful run for mayor in 1841; and after Inman’s death in 1846 made the unwise decision to bid for the Capitol Rotunda commission a second time, only to be rebuffed again. With this final insult, Morse ended his career as an artist absolutely, resigning his post at the National Academy in 1847. He subsequently occupied himself with such scientific pursuits as the placing of an Atlantic telegraph cable, in partnership with Cyrus Field. Morse died in New York, and was buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

In the next post, about young Morse’s ill-fated portrait of the former president John Adams, you’ll get a clearer idea of the frustration he first encountered as a struggling painter.

(For a more extensive discussion with reference notes, see American Paintings in the Brooklyn Museum: Artists Born by 1876, available in the Museum shop and library.)

For more information on Morse and his artistic career, see Paul J. Staiti, Samuel F.B. Morse, Cambridge University Press, 1989.