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Samuel F. B. Morse

American, 1791 - 1872

Morse, Samuel Finley Breese

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The artist and inventor Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born in 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the eldest son of Reverend Jedidiah Morse and Elizabeth Ann Breese. Morse's intellectual outlook and future commitment to cultural nationalism was deeply influenced by the orthodox Calvinist millennialism and evangelism he inherited from his father. He began to paint portraits in the naive style characteristic of the Connecticut School while attending Yale University. After graduation he moved to Boston and became the private pupil and friend of Washington Allston, who introduced him to a traditional program of academic study that encompassed drawing, anatomy, and art theory. With Allston's encouragement he went to London in 1811, where he met Benjamin West, befriended Charles Robert Leslie, and was accepted as a student at the Royal Academy of Art. Morse's first major painting, The Dying Hercules (1812-13, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), was a fairly competent attempt at the neoclassical history painting that was in vogue among Academy painters.

Full of optimism, the young painter returned to America in 1815 with expectations of establishing himself as a professional artist. The unsophisticated cultural atmosphere was not conducive to his aspirations, and Morse was forced into earning a meager living as an itinerant portraitist, active in New England, Charleston, South Carolina, and New York. He suffered a major disappointment when his painting The House of Representatives (1822-23, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), envisioned as a touring picture for public entertainment, was a critical and financial failure. Morse's perseverance was finally rewarded in 1824 when he won the most prestigious commission of the decade to paint the full-length portrait The Marquis de Lafayette (1825-26, City of New York) when the French hero was on his triumphal tour of America. The successful completion of this important portrait gained Morse the recognition and professional eminence he had sought for a decade, and designated the apex of his career as an artist.

An educated, eloquent, and tireless crusader on behalf of artists' rights, in 1826 Morse used his new prestige to lead a group of young artists who seceded from the moribund American Academy of Art and founded the progressive National Academy of Design; he served as its first president until 1845. The foundation of this new organization, which was dedicated primarily to art instruction, led directly to an efflorescence of American art, and a new generation of painters and sculptors made their debuts at its annual exhibitions. In 1826 Morse delivered a series of four important lectures at the New York Athenaeum in which he argued for the advancement of art in American society.

In 1829 he embarked on a three year grand tour of Europe, where he studied and copied works by the old masters in the museums of France and Italy. This period culminated in the large Gallery of the Louvre (1832-33, Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago), a pictorial summation of European art with which he hoped to improve American culture after his return to New York in 1832. Despite its favorable reception among the intelligentsia, the painting failed before the general public. Morse was further humiliated in 1837 when the Congressional Committee on Public Buildings decided not to commission him to paint a mural for the Capitol Rotunda. This rejection may in part have been brought about by Morse's reputation for radical politics; in the middle 1830s he became associated with the Native American party and wrote several widely-read and vitriolic anti-Catholic diatribes whose xenophobic tone bordered on paranoia. Disillusioned by failure, Morse ceased painting in 1837 at the age of forty-six, and devoted the last thirty-five years of his life to perfecting the electromagnetic telegraph. He died in New York in 1872.

Strictly as an artist Morse did not exert a major impact on the stylistic development of nineteenth century American art, and his ideas and art appealed exclusively to the cultural elite. Well before his death Morse's invention of the telegraph had eclipsed his early renown as a painter, and it was only after the retrospective exhibition of his work held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1932 that interest in his art revived. With the exception of the romantic Lafayette portrait, his most ambitious works failed before an unreceptive public. Unable to earn a living through painting historical subjects he was forced into portraiture, and many of these paintings are of negligible quality. It was as a founder and first president of the National Academy of Design that Morse did much to advance art in America. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]

Artist Bibliography

Prime, Samuel I. Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. New York, 1875.
Larkin, Oliver W. Samuel F. B. Morse and American Democratic Art. Boston, 1954.
Kloss, William. Samuel F. B. Morse. New York, 1988.
Staiti, Paul J. Samuel F. B. Morse. New York, 1989.
Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 14-15.

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