Monday, June 18, 2012

Words of Wisdom: Samuel Morse

"I need not tell you what a difficult profession I have undertaken.  It has difficulties in itself which are sufficient to deter any man who has not firmness enough to go through with it at all hazards, without meeting any obstacles aside from it.  The more I study it, the more I am enchanted with it;  and the greater my progress, the more I am struck with its beauties. . . ."¹ in a letter from Samuel Morse to his parents, dated May 2, 1814.

Samuel F.B. Morse
The Gallery of the Louvre
oil on canvas
6 X 9 feet

The central figure looking over the art student's shoulder is Morse himself. At left, in the red turban, is American Richard Habersham, Morse's Paris roommate.  In the back lefthand corner is Sue Cooper, with her mother,  Susan, and her father, the author James Fenimore Cooper, looking admiringly at their daughter's work.  Entering the gallery with hat-in-hand is Horatio Greenough.  The other women in the scene are not identified, but serve as symbols to the American audience for whom the painting was created.  The woman in the white, peaked hat, and the young girl by her side, are from Brittany, and show how in Europe, art is available for all classes and ages.  The female art students are a reminder how in progressive France, unlike in the United States, women were not barred from studying art.

Many people remember Samuel Finley Breese Morse as the father of the American electromagnetic  telegraph, and as the creator of the dot and dash system of communication that bears his name, but few people remember Samuel Morse the artist.  As a student at Yale, Morse showed some aptitude for science, but it was in painting and drawing where he excelled, and where his interests did lay.  "I was made for a painter,"² he told his parents at the age of nineteen.  But Morse, despite his Calvinist preacher father being a well-known geographer, was not so financially well off as to easily afford professional art training.  Even after years of hard work, when Morse had developed a reputation as a portrait painter of excellence, he had difficulties supporting his wife and children;  his youthful dreams of visiting the Louvre and studying art in Paris were far beyond his income, and seemed all but hopeless.  He needed to increase his earnings in order to continue painting, and turned his attentions toward inventions and patents as a means to supplement his meager wealth.

His early inventions brought him little remuneration.  In 1817, a leather, water pump that Morse and his brother Sidney developed for use on fire engines was a successful tool, but a financial failure.  A marble-cutting machine Morse designed five years later ended up infringing on another inventors' patents, and also brought him little monetary relief.

Morse's original telegraph machine was made from various
pieces of other equipment, including a canvas stretcher.

When Morse eventually travelled to France around 1830, it was on advances he had received from American collectors who had hired him to make copies of famous paintings in Europe.  It was in France, where Morse first saw a telegraph - a series of towers spaced six miles apart which enabled men, when the weather was clear, to relay semaphore messages across the country.  After losing on a bid to create paintings for the American Capitol, Morse quit art entirely, and decided instead to focus on his own design for an electric telegraph.  Combining contemporary work in electronics and electromagnetism, and building upon less successful electric telegraphs recently invented, Morse was able to create a practical and efficient system of single-wire communication which reshaped the world.  The rest, as they say, is history.


In 1825, a group of artists from the American Academy of the fine Arts, including Morse, Asher B. Durand, Martin Thompson, and Thomas Cole, formed a drawing cooperative they called the New York Drawing Association.  It was run by and for artists, and aimed "to promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition."³  Morse was elected its first president.

A year later, after a failed attempt to reconcile members of the Drawing Association with its estranged parent organization, the American Academy, Morse and his followers formed the National Academy of the Arts of Design.  It was their hope that this new group would better support teaching and would be free of the stodginess and exclusivity⁴ associated with the American Academy and its president, John Trumbull.  Morse became the first president of the National Academy, and was made famous as a teacher through a series of lectures on art that he delivered at Colombia College, the first such talks ever given by an American artist.⁵

Morse, who was, in 1827, still familiar with financial hardship and the struggles of being an artist, offered these words of wisdom to his audience:

At a gathering of the National Academy, while awarding prizes to young artists, he told them that if they expected a painter's life to be one of ease and pleasure, they were greatly mistaken.  It was "a life of severe and perpetual toil."  They must expect "continual obstacles and discouragements, and be prepared to encounter illiberality, neglect, obscurity, and poverty."  Only an "intense and inextinguishable love of art" could sustain them to bear up, and if they did not feel this love, they should "turn while yet they might to other pursuits."⁶

David McCullough's book, The Greater Journey:  Americans in Paris has a section dealing with Samuel Morse, his time in Paris, and the creation of the ambitious 6' by 9' painting, Gallery of the Louvre (pictured above).  To hear McCollough speak about the painting, please visit The Best of the Louvre, On a Single Canvas, at the National Public Radio website.  The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, published in 2011, is available at

¹ McCullough, David, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011), p. 80.
² ibid., p. 76.
³ "National Academy of Design," retrieved June 18, 2012 from [].
⁴ McCullough, p. 84.
⁵ idem.
⁶ idem.

1 comment:

Katherine Thomas said...

That's a really interesting story. Who drew/painted the black and white piece of Morse with his invention?