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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
During all this unhappy performance, Morse’s circumstances grew ever more urgent. He had exhausted his resources on his grand tour, and he desperately needed money simply to exist without charity, let alone provide a home for his now motherless children, who had been left with relatives. The Louvre picture was his most immediate money-making project, and he must find time to finish it. Now, in spite of gnawing poverty, the excitements of Nativism, and his dreams of a telegraph, during the five years following his return from Europe this strange and often confusing man painted some of his most brilliant portraits. He was at the full maturity of his powers as an artist, yet his commissions were few. He was paid sixty dollars for the Allegorical Landscape Showing New York University , a telling indication of how uncertain his brush became when he departed from the facts before his eyes and trusted to his imagination. It is a confused picture, although it provides a welcome reminder of the “fine Gothick building” on the east side of Washington Square, in one of whose leaking and drafty tower rooms he had taken up his quarters. He had been appointed to the faculty to teach sculpture and painting in the newly formed University of the City of New York—the first professorship of fine arts in any American college, and a very meager source of income.
He also managed to finish his Exhibition Gallery of the Louvre and with high hopes put it up for public exhibition in August, 1833. Yet for all Cooper’s predictions and some glowing effusions that appeared in the New York press, it was another dismal financial failure. Even that was not enough to kill his aspirations. The worst blow of all came four years later when, after a long period of intermittent great expectations, a very highly recommended proposal that he be commissioned to paint a historical scene for one of the four undecorated panels in the rotunda of the Capitol was flatly rejected by Congress. Yet, when his influential and wealthy friends rallied round after that humiliation and commissioned him to paint any historical scene he chose, for three thousand dollars, he never did get around to it. He had been seduced by a new mistress whose claims on his interests were irresistible. To the consternation of most of his respectful students and colleagues, he was everlastingly preoccupied with wires and batteries and magnets.
Some years later Morse observed that he had not abandoned art, but that art had abandoned him. Painting may have been a smiling mistress to many, he wrote his old friend Cooper, “but she has been a cruel jilt to me … my idea of that profession was perhaps too exalted; I may say is too exalted. I leave it to others, more worthy to fill the niches of art.” If there is room for error in such matters, it might as well be said that Providence had miscast him as an artist. Or had he misunderstood the “call” that had come to him a quarter of a century earlier? Morse had spent a full half of his life before he put down his brushes. But in his canvases he had never realized the mood of magic that now filled his dreams of telegraphy. Actually, since his student days he had never tried to climb to “the higher branches of art,” because no one offered him enough money to make it worth his while. He did, in fact, almost starve in a garret, but, unlike the starving genius of romance, he did not improve his time by creating masterpieces the world might one day come to recognize. He waited for the big commissions that would release his spirit, and they did not come; he suffered, but at length turned to other things.
For a while Morse continued to think of his invention as a way of making enough money to free himself at last for the full pursuit of his muse, without the crass consideration of commissions, as in youth he had thought of a fire-pump apparatus he had invented with his brother and, later, of an idea for a marblecutting machine. But in the spring and summer of 1837 news from England reported that substantial advances were being made in telegraphy overseas. If he did not quickly stake a firm claim in the field, he would be beaten to the goal; everything he had done so far would be wasted and his hopes gone.
In Morse’s new role the most obdurate circumstances were not enough to thwart his purpose. The need to work fast converted his interest into an obsession, and out of this emerged a new sense of exaltation that he needed to satisfy his own soul. “God knows me better than I know myself … ,” he wrote one of his brothers. “I shall therefore be sustained in all events.”
Sustained or not, he was off to a late start. Morse was almost blissfully unaware of his own ignorance. He lacked adequate scientific knowledge; he seems not to have known of Henry’s crucial experiments. He lacked the mechanical skill to make his own materials with any professional finesse. He lacked money to promote his scheme. And, in general, he faced a chilling skepticism in the world about him. His friends spoke sadly of the “miserable delusion” that had seized this warmly admired teacher and artist. If not at the start, however, Morse in the end got the help he needed from many sources, so many that he was never sure just where it had come from. Sometimes in stubborn pride he refused to concede that some of the most constructive suggestions were anything but his own earlier discoveries.