In a single painting, Samuel F. B. Morse – artist and inventor of the telegraph – captured France’s greatest masterpieces and brought them to an American audience. The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents Morse’s grand canvas, Gallery of the Louvre, painted from 1831 to 1833, alongside more than 65 rare photographs from the museum’s collection of photographs, in an exhibition that explores the role of images in transmitting ideas and transforming communication. ‘Samuel F.B. Morse's Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention’ is organized by the Terra Foundation for American Art and is on view at PEM October 8, 2016 through January 8, 2017.
While Morse is best known as the inventor of the telegraph and his namesake code, he first achieved success as one of the best portrait painters of his generation. He was also an art professor who wanted to bring knowledge of European art to America at a time when there were very few public museums in the United States. His monumental canvas, Gallery of the Louvre, was his attempt to do just that.
Measuring approximately six by nine feet, the painting depicts an installation of artworks at Paris’ Musée du Louvre, compressing 38 paintings, two sculptures and numerous figures into a single composition. Morse labored for 14 months at the Louvre, making individual copies of paintings by Da Vinci, Titian and Rubens and exploring various approaches to the treatment of color, light, line and composition. He then arranged these works into an imagined composition set in a real space, the Louvre’s Salon Carré, with the intent of creating visual and thematic connections between the works. He populated the gallery with several figures admiring or studying art, and included himself at the center, instructing a female student who is copying a painting.
“Morse wanted his painting to visually communicate his ideas about the importance of European art to the development of American art and culture,” says Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s George Putnam Curator of American Art. “He believed Americans had much to learn from the masterpieces of the Louvre he chose to copy and from museums, which he wanted to play as vital a role in American society.”