What Samuel Wrought

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In the end Morse did not meet with the encouragement he felt he deserved. When they summoned him from England he had written to his parents that to return meant to throw away “the talents which Heaven has given me for the higher branches of art.” The cultural climate of America would drive him into being “a mere portrait painter.” The great majority of the hundreds of paintings he produced in the next thirty years were indeed portraits. John Adams once declared he would not give a fig for a Raphael, but even he sat for Morse when the young artist returned from abroad.

Although he enjoyed prosperous seasons and painted prominent people, including President James Monroe as well as Adams, the financial returns were not consistently ample. When he took a wife and sired a family, he found it all but impossible to keep a roof over their heads. He was never a provident sort. In 1822, at a time when his wife and children were obliged to move in with the elder Morses, Finley impulsively made a donation of five hundred dollars to the Yale library. For him, money was never simply an end in itself. It stood for the recognition of merit, the successful accomplishment of a mission, the reward of virtue—and fame, perhaps, if that were the will of God.

The climate of our booming democracy was not actually so harsh for artists. A number of Morse’s contemporaries enjoyed a very decent success with their landscapes and their genre pieces, not to mention their portraits. But Morse, guided by his own inner lights, set the terms on which he would accept recognition and admit success as an artist, and these his countrymen were not prepared to meet. In 1822 he completed the first of the only two large compositions he ever attempted, Congress Hall or The Old House of Representatives . With its eighty-odd miniature portraits, its solemn, dramatically lighted setting, and its skillful handling of perspective, the painting was a major accomplishment. But it was not a great imaginative vision such as he had dreamed of creating. It was a tour de force, a fine example of proficient reporting. By putting it on the road he hoped to match the success several of his fellow artists were enjoying with their large, traveling showpieces that “played” to big paying audiences. But when he unveiled his own attraction, the public seemed not to care. After a few trials, Congress Hall was rolled away for years, then sold for a mere thousand dollars and taken to England.

At one point in later life Morse expressed the wish that, except for a few he valued as family documents, his pictures might all be destroyed. He felt he had failed as an artist, and, for a few generations at least, posterity concurred by remembering him almost exclusively as the internationally renowned inventor. But his invention has long since become a commonplace convenience, an almost rudimentary survival in an age that relays its communications from satellites hurtling through outer space, and today it is much easier to judge Morse fairly as an artist. Not only can we see his work without the personal prejudices that led him to condemn it and without the blinding distraction of his fame in other fields, we can see it more clearly against the total accomplishment of his time. And we can find among his paintings some that are as fine as any by his American contemporaries. Indeed, in their combination of technical competence and perceptive rendering, his portraits of Judge Mitchell, Benjamin Silliman, and William Cullen Bryant—to name a few—have rarely if ever been excelled by an artist in this country.

In what he did do, Morse was a very successful painter, except that in the long run he could not make a decent living by his brush. It was in what he did not do, did not try to do, but felt he should do, that he failed in his own eyes. For a long time before he was willing to concede any incongruity in his personal concept of the true nature of art, Morse labored with the hope of educating the world around him to higher standards of taste. He would lead his fellow artists in the promotion of their own interest, call public attention to the dignity of their calling, and thus, perhaps, serve his country as well as by exercising his own heaven-sent talent. For, as he wrote his wife shortly before her early death, he was determined to do “something for the Arts in our country.”