Samuel F. B. Morse’s unrelentingly factual portrait of the former president John Adams was both the result of an important commission from the leading Philadelphia publisher Joseph Delaplaine (1777-1824) and the cause of one of the artist’s earliest professional disappointments. When Morse returned to Boston from London in the fall of 1815, he was hopeful that his student success at the Royal Academy predicted his future success in America. In advance of his arrival, he had explained in a letter to his parents that he planned to begin painting portraits immediately, at a charge forty dollars below Stuart’s, earning enough within a year to return to England with more important commissions in hand. Circumstances were to prove harder than expected, however, and by the time the young artist received the offer of several commissions from Delaplaine, his well-connected father had already communicated with one of the prospective sitters, John Adams, on his son’s behalf.
As early as the summer of 1814, Joseph Delaplaine had begun to circulate an extravagant prospectus advertising a series of illustrated volumes entitled Delaplaine’s Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished American Characters. He had initiated the project with a substantial profit in mind, and therefore intended to pay very little for the original portraits on which his engraving illustrations would be based. Morse must have relished the opportunity to contribute to Delaplaine’s grandly conceived effort despite the offer of a mere twenty-five dollars per portrait (Morse was probably aware that Gilbert Stuart had received $100 for a portrait of the aging ex-president earlier that year). In part as a favor to the elder Morse, John Adams grudgingly obliged to sit for the portrait, commenting, “It seems not worth while to take a bald head, on which fourscore Winters have snowed.” He delayed their encounter, however, continuing, “[I]t would be too much to ask [Morse] to come to me and it would be disturbing for me, in the dead of winter, to go to Boston. . . .. But who knows what may happen before spring.”
Morse apparently completed the portrait in relative haste while staying at the Adams home, for by February 10, 1816, Abigail Adams had declared it “a stern unpleasing likeness.” Admittedly shocking in its directness and honesty, it was nevertheless an improvement over other of Morse’s early portraits, which conveyed neither the physical substance nor vitality of his sitters. The determination with which Morse documented the deep creases and sagging flesh, the graceless stare, and pinched, involuntary grimace of the elderly Adams was surely unexpected. Adams’s own reaction to Morse’s portrait is more difficult to gauge. Delaplaine’s was quick and negative; he immediately sought to convince Adams of its shortcomings, and unsuccessfully requested access to the portrait of Adams that had been executed by Gilbert Stuart.In his rejection of the portrait, Delaplaine quoted to Morse the harsh critiques of the artist’s peers and stated his intention to withhold payment. Humiliated by the rebuff and frustrated by Stuart’s confirmed hold on the portrait market, Morse abandoned his artistic practice temporarily that summer.
(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.
Update 1/28/09: The portrait of John Adams is currently on view in the Luce Visible Storage/Study Center, hanging in painting bay 24.