- Historic Sites
What Samuel Wrought
To him, said Morse, art had been only “a cruel jilt.” Then Providence found other work for this complex, difficult Yankee
April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
In whatever he did Morse was driven by the lofty assurance that he labored in this divinely-ordained service. As a sixth-generation Yankee Puritan, he was acutely aware of his responsibilities to God and man. From the very beginning the sense of personal mission lias run in a strong current throughout the course of American history: ami it has been inseparable horn the larger sense of a national destiny. At both levels that spirit grew more emphatic and more articulate during the first half of the last century, when faith in the American experiment in democracy took on the fervor of a state religion. There was nothing essentially or exclusively Puritanical about it, however. From William Penn and Thomas Jefferson as well, the nation inherited a conviction that in this New World, alone of all places, virtue would be substantially rewarded—that virtue and prosperity would be in fact interdependent. As the country fattened on its natural resources and its ever-expanding economy, it became increasingly difficult to separate the fortuitous and the providential elements in our success and prosperity. Only in very recent years, as our leadership has been challenged and our affluence decried, has there seemed to be reason to make any distinction in the matter.
Out of this fact has stemmed much that is typical and curious about the American experience, from its giand assumption of a Manifest Destiny to the case of Henry Ford, who never was able to separate the Model T from his sense of an individual mission in the cause of human welfare. Samuel Morse was a man of changeable enthusiasms who sought fame and fortune in several very disparate ways, but his life was unified by a willingness to fit his own ambitions into the designs of Providence. At times the very stubbornness of his conviction led him into awkward difficulties and unworthy contentions; in the end it was the vital ingredient of his great success.
As youth, Morse had approached art in a spirit of consecration. The parsonage at Charlestown, Massachusetts, where he was born in 1791, was an unlikely background for one who would become a painter. But the lad had a “calling” that would not be denied. The urgent nature of that summons was not immediately apparent to his reverend father, Dr. Jedidiah Morse, who from a distance had observed young Finley at Yale painting likenesses of schoolmates to pay for the “seegars” and other frivolities he enjoyed as a student. But when Washington Allston, brother-in-law of William Ellery Channing and, although a painter, a man of unquestionably spiritual quality (“one of the purest, noblest, and intellectual beings” Washington living had ever met), endorsed young Finley’s aspirations, Jedidiah unbent. At some sacrifice, and with the pious hope that their son would “consecrate his acquisitions to the glory ol God and the best good of his fellow man,” the anxious elder Morses sent their son abroad with Allston to perfect his skill.
They need not have worried. Fin ley was dedicated to the noblest ideals of his chosen profession. “My ambition,” he wrote home, “is to be among those who shall reveal the splendor of the fifteenth century; to rival the genius of a Raphael, a Michelangelo, or a Titian; my ambition is to be enlisted in the constellation of genius now rising in this country; I wish to shine, not by a light borrowed from them, but to strive to shine the brightest.” To accomplish this he would eschew portraiture and landscape and devote himself to “the intellectual branch of the art,” by which he meant lie would be a historical painter. To this end, in whatever time he could spare from his easel, he read and studied the works of Spenser, Chaucer, Dante, Tasso, and others. By historical painting, in turn, he obviously meant pictures illustrating legends, anecdotes, and literary allusions, in March, 1814, he wrote a friend that he was still hard at his studies. “At present,” he continued, “i am preparing a picture for Somerset House exhibition, ‘Dorothea/ from Don Quixote. 1 think J shall not be able to see my native country for some years yet to come; 1 must return a painter .”
As a token of these high intentions Morse won a gold medal, oddly enough for his first and only sculpture, a modeled figure of the dying Hercules. Then, the large painting he had made from the model received extravagant praise when it was hung in the Royal Academy exhibition. Washington Allston, who spoke with oracular authority, thought his protege would have won further distinction with his next work, The Judgment of Jupiter , but the Morses were no longer able to support their son in London, and before the picture could be exhibited Finley had to return home to make his own living. “If he meets with encouragement,” Allston wrote to Jedidiah, “he will be a great painter.”