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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
With militant enthusiasm he helped form and, in 1826, assumed the presidency of the new National Academy of Design, an organization of working artists that would exhibit contemporary American art, offer instruction and awards, and set professional standards of excellence. As president, a position he continued to fill for the next nineteen years, Morse threw his greatest energies into Academy affairs. “Finley is well and in good spirits,” wrote one of his brothers at the time, “though not advancing very rapidly in his business. He is full of the Academy and of his lectures—can hardly talk on any other subject. I despair of ever seeing him rich or even at ease in his pecuniary circumstances from efforts of his own, though able to do it with so little effort.”
The activities of the new academy brought Morse into head-on collision with the earlier-established American Academy of Fine Arts, an organization controlled and patronized largely by public-spirited laymen, and its venerable president, Colonel John Trumbull. The principle that artists should and could operate in a union of professional interest in itself brought sharp criticism. Morse’s first address as president was immediately challenged by a broadside printed in the North American Review . Referring to the rise of science and industry in America and the booming activity of metropolitan New York, the anonymous commentator observed: “We are not prepared to see the American system, as it is called, extended to literature or the arts. It would be the worst policy for the artists. Painting and sculpture are not among the necessaries of life. Much as they improve and adorn society, a taste for them is not even the necessary accompaniment of a high degree of civilization.” And, in another blast: “We would not have the arts degraded even in favor of the artists … We can hardly hope that the masterpieces of ancient art are ever to be surpassed here or in Europe. The forms and occupations of society are growing every day less favorable to the highest efforts of the imagination. We live in an age of utility … In this cultivation of the reason, the imagination loses its power. Eloquence, poetry, painting, and sculpture, do not belong to such an age; they are already declining, and they must give way before the progress of popular education, science, and the useful arts. …” But these attacks only strengthened Morse’s stubborn determination to lead his academy to the high destiny he envisioned for it. He fought for his cause relentlessly over the years until, at last, he felt he could confidently transfer the leadership to younger men.
But neither the frustrations he had met in his own art nor the early struggles of the academy had yet killed off the aspirations of Morse’s youth. He still planned to return to Europe, to the continent, where he had never gone, “to rekindle my former ardor and renew my recollection of excellence in the art.” And in 1829, buttressed by a number of private commissions for copies and originals to be made in Italy and France, he left on his grand tour. In those more enlightened parts of the world, he felt with fresh conviction, he would execute some painting worthy of his ideals, a picture that would indeed do “something for the Arts in our country.” If all went well, it might also replenish his purse.
Morse’s tour lasted almost three years. Those were turbulent times in Europe. He witnessed the uprisings in the Papal States and saw them put down with the aid of Metternich’s Austrian troops. In Paris the radical movement, with Lafayette, patriarch of republican causes, at its head, had fizzled out after the July Revolution of 1830 when Louis Philippe was elevated to the throne. The liberal revolts in Poland were crushed, again with help from Metternich. Morse talked at length with Lafayette about the threats to human freedom from meddling autocracy and heard denunciations which he never forgot leveled at the farreaching authority of the pope.
During most of the last spring and summer, in 1832, he worked himself almost to the point of exhaustion on what was to be a “great work…—his painting of a gallery in the Louvre, with thirty-odd selected masterpieces represented as though they were hanging together on the walls of the Salon Carré. Morse learned much from this intimate, workaday contact with the old masters. James Fenimore Cooper, who was so constantly at his side in the gallery that, as he said, his face was as familiar in the Louvre as any Van Dyck, assured Morse that his picture “must take” with the American public. And unwittingly most damning, he wrote home from Paris that Morse “copies admirably.”
Somewhere along the line Morse’s early ambition had lost its bearings. He was revealing the splendors of the past great ages of painting, as he had once said he would do; he was taking Titian, Raphael, Leonardo, and the other masters to the American people in the hope they might be willing to look at copies of works they would probably never see in the originals; but he was not shining with his own light. He was dealing in second-hand goods.
Morse left France on the ship Sully in the fall of 1832 with his Louvre painting ready for finishing at home and his mind brimming with the conversations he had held with old Lafayette. There was also another excitement on the eve of his departure. He had seen the semaphores in Paris announcing the suppression of the Poles; it distressed him additionally that the news had come so slowly, so late, and he was soon excited about the practical possibilities of transmitting intelligence by electricity.