Before achieving fame in the 1840s as the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F. B. Morse was a portraitist of some renown. He sought to cement his reputation as a painter by attempting a grand work of historical significance: The House of Representatives. The foundation for such lofty ambition was laid when he studied at London's Royal Academy of Arts, where painters were taught to execute epic pictures that could edify their audiences. Upon his return to America, Morse chose the chamber of the lower body of the United States Congress in session at the US Capitol—a place unseen and unvisited by most Americans in 1822—as his subject for this monumental undertaking.
Arriving in Washington, DC, in November 1820, Morse worked 14 hours a day for four months in a temporary studio adjacent to the House chamber, which recently had been rebuilt after the Capitol was destroyed by fire during the War of 1812. His massive canvas included careful renderings of architecture and people, including Congressmen, staff, Supreme Court justices, and press. In the visitors' gallery at the far right is Pawnee Indian chief Petalesharo, and on the left, Morse's father, Reverend Jedidiah Morse. Rev. Morse was in town to report on Indian affairs to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, one of the giants of American political life before the Civil War and a leading defender of slavery.
Ultimately, Morse created a picture of the House of Representatives not as it was, but as he wanted it to be. At a time when the House was often raucous and factional—debating major legislation such as the Slave Trade Act of 1820 and the Missouri Compromise of 1821—Morse presented instead a tranquil and relatively uneventful scene. He toured the painting nationally in 1823, but its lack of sensational subject matter failed to attract wide audiences and ultimately proved to be a financial failure. In the ensuing years, Morse turned away from painting to pursue his scientific interests.
oil on canvas
overall: 220.7 × 331.8 cm (86 7/8 × 130 5/8 in.)
framed: 256.5 × 363.2 × 10.5 cm (101 × 143 × 4 1/8 in.)
Artists / Makers
Samuel F. B. Morse (painter) American, 1791 - 1872
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lower left: S.F.B. MORSE. pinx / 1822
Acquired from the artist by 1828 by Charles Robert Leslie [1794-1859], London; sold c. September 1839 to Sherman Converse [1790-1873], New Haven. (Coates and Company, New York), in 1847. W.C. Annan, Esq, San Francisco, by 1857. Joseph Ripley, in 1858. Purchased by Daniel Huntington [1816-1906], New York, by 1873; purchased from his estate 17 June 1911 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Albany, New York; Hartford, Connecticut; Middletown, Connecticut, Fall 1823.
- David Doggett's Repository, Boston, February-April 1823.
- Essex Coffee House, Salem, Massachusetts, May 1823.
- Morse's Popular Picture of the Hall of the House of Representatives, 146 Fulton Street near Broadway, New York, May-July 1823.
- New Haven, Connecticut, early February 1823.
- Possibly Springfield and Northampton, Massachusetts, 1823.
- American Academy of Fine Arts, New York, 1825, no. 4, as Hall of the House of Representatives, Washington City, preparing for an evening session.
- Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, 1827, no. 51, as House of Representatives in the capitol at Washington, containing 88 portraits of distinguished characters.
- Peale's Gallery of the Fine Arts, Albany, 1828, no. 23, as The Celebrated Picture of the House of Representatives.
- Second Winter Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, 1868-1869, no. 178, as The House of Representatives in Washington, in 1823.
- Samuel F.B. Morse: American Painter, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1932, unnumbered catalogue.
- Life in America: A Special Loan Exhibition of Paintings Held During the Period of the New York World's Fair, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1939, no. 72.
- American Processional, 1492-1900, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1950, no. 116.
- Loan Exhibition. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art: A Benefit Exhibition in Honor of the Gallery's Centenary, Wildenstein, New York, 1959, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- American Painters of the South, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1960, no. 82, cover repro.
- Loan to display with permanent collection, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, 1970-1971.
- Nineteenth-Century America: Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1970, no. 28.
- Corcoran [The American Genius]. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1976, unnumbered catalogue.
- La Pintura de los Estados Unidos de Museos de la Ciudad de Washington [Painting in the United States from Public Collections in Washington], Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 1980-1981, no. 7.
- The Century Club Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1993, unpublished checklist.
- Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, unpublished checklist.
- Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 13.
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
- American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013-28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- Woodworth, Frederick A. Fourth Annual Report of the President of the Mercantile Library Association of San Francisco, with a List of the Officers for 1857-58. San Francisco, 1857: 11.
- Clement, Clara Erskine, and Laurence Hutton. Artists of the Nineteenth Century and their Works: a handbook containing two thousand and fifty biographical sketches. Vol. II. Boston, 1879: 133.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Handbook of the American Paintings in the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1947: 26, as The Old House of Representatives.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1959: 47, repro.
- Gerdts, William et al. Lasting Impressions: American Painters in France 1865-1915. Exh. cat. Musée Américain Giverny, 1992: 126-127, fig. 115.
- Staiti, Paul. "Samuel Finley Breese Morse, The House of Representatives." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 36, 70-73, 257, repro.
- Raab, Jennifer. "Mapping History." American Art 29, no. 2 (Summer 2015): 19-27, color figs. 1, 3 (detail).
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