SALEM — Samuel F.B. Morse did more than invent the telegraph and Morse code. He was also a noted painter. During the early 1830s, Morse lived in Europe. In Paris, he’d go to the
Louvre Museum to copy its paintings. He’d ultimately incorporate them into his own grandest canvas.
“Gallery of the Louvre,” which Morse finished in 1833, in New York, measures more than 54 square feet. It shows 38 paintings from the museum’s collection, along with a Roman sculpture and Greek vase. Included are works by Leonardo da Vinci (yes, it’s the “Mona Lisa”), Titian, Veronese, Caravaggio, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Watteau. Morse shows himself admiring the Old Masters, as well as his friends the sculptor Horatio Greenough and novelist James Fenimore Cooper.
The painting, which is owned by the Terra Foundation for American Art, in Chicago, started a nine-venue tour last year. Its current stop is the Peabody Essex Museum. It’s the centerpiece of “Samuel F.B. Morse’s ‘Gallery of the Louvre’ and the Art of Invention.” Also on display are 65 photographs, most from PEM’s collection.
“It’s like a proto-Pinterest board,” Austen Barron Bailly says of the painting, only half joking. Bailly is the Peabody Essex’s curator of American art.
Pinterest boards, being virtual, are weightless. The same can’t be said of “Gallery.” Weighing 300 pounds, it travels by truck in a specially designed crate. Also getting its own (much smaller) crate is the one surviving study, a copy of Titian’s portrait of Francis I.
A Terra registrar and curatorial assistant accompany the paintings. Upon arrival, “Gallery” stays in its crate for 24 hours to acclimate to its new setting. It’s then brought out and a “condition report” is written up before the painting is hung. At PEM, “Gallery” turned out to be top heavy, which had to be compensated for. A cleat along the back supports the painting.
Morse had multiple reasons for painting “Gallery.” One was aesthetic. In terms of taste, the painting was a double statement: the inclusion of those 38 paintings he considered worthy, and the exclusion of hundreds of others he didn’t.
“It’s audacious,” Bailly says. “He chose the works he felt were academically and art-historically the works to study and understand. That’s a pretty bold statement.” Morse clearly had favorites. The 17th century merits 20 paintings in “Gallery.” Italian painters account for 15 canvases. Titian and Van Dyck lead among individual artists, with four paintings each.
Another reason for Morse to do it — and another aspect of the project’s audacity — was ego. “Gallery” served as an immense calling card for Morse’s talents. As Bailly notes, to render a high-quality copy of a painting “is an amazing skill.”
Copying as documentation rather than demonstration of technical virtuosity was another reason for “Gallery.” “It’s hard to get back to a pre-photographic mind-set,” Bailly says. This was an age when few could afford to travel to Europe, and those who could faced a lengthy, difficult, and often dangerous voyage. So something like “Gallery” was “the only way to see a color image of a work of art.”
One other reason may well have outweighed the rest: profit. “Gallery of the Louvre” was the equivalent of what we’d now call a multimedia spectacle, and Morse hoped to make a financial killing by taking “Gallery” on the road.
“That was the idea,” Bailly says. “The single-picture exhibition was definitely in vogue: selling tickets to see it, advertisements taken out in the newspaper. But it was a flop. It ended up showing only in New York and New Haven, then he canceled the rest of the tour. As a spectacle, an attraction, it just didn’t fit the bill for what Americans wanted to see.’’
“We hope for a better reception.” deadpans Sarah Kennel, PEM’s photography curator.
Each of the nine “Gallery” venues has taken a different approach to presenting it. Some have shown the painting by itself; others have put together an accompanying exhibition. That’s what PEM has chosen to do, drawing on its photography collection.
The interest in technology that led Morse to invent the telegraph also drew him to photography. He became one of the first practitioners in the United States. He also taught photography. Among his students was Mathew Brady. Hanging near “Gallery” is a Brady portrait of Morse, on loan to the museum.
The photographs on display range in date from the early days of photography to quite recently. Photographers include Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Laura McPhee, and that most important name in photographic history, Anonymous.
“It’s like a slice of our photography collection,” Kennel says, “just like the slice of the Louvre that Morse provided us with: not our greatest hits, necessarily, but a representative sampling.”
She adds, “So we were inspired both by Morse’s interest in communicating through images, broadly speaking, and also by his act of curating and collecting and, in effect, distilling what he thought was the essence of the museum.”
SAMUEL F.B. MORSE’S ‘GALLERY OF THE LOUVRE’ AND THE ART OF INVENTION
At Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, through Jan. 8. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.