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Art & Culture

“Gallery of the Louvre” Painted by Samuel F.B. Morse During 1830-’33

[from Aug. 2011]

To view images full size, left click on each

[Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on August 10th, 2011 & slightly re-edited on April 27, 2013.]

The litigious 19th century American artist and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse is deftly introduced in a Wikipedia biographical article with the concise statement that “Morse was an American contributor to the single-wire telegraph system based on European telegraphs, co-inventor of the Morse code, and an accomplished painter.” No hagiography here!

Samuel F.B. Morse, "Gallery-of-the-Louvre" (1830-'33.

Samuel F.B. Morse, “Gallery-of-the-Louvre” (1830-’33.

And Morse’s huge, world-famous painting, Gallery of the Louvre (1830-‘33), cleaned and conserved in 2011 by its current owner, the Terra Foundation for American Art, was handsomely installed in the large formal alcove located between the National Gallery’s East Garden Court and the long sculpture gallery leading to the West Building’s classical rotunda.

Morse’s painting is an art history masterwork, one which has no narrative other than that of the artist’s expressed desire to display his favorite works in the French collections at the Louvre by the great Renaissance and Baroque painters of Western Europe in a grand arrangement of a single painting that displays these works on the walls of a hypothetical gallery in the Louvre. Morse’s depiction of his favorites are quickly noted — the Venetians, beginning with four works by Titian, led by his painting of Christ Crowned with Thorns and including Veronese’s greatest work, The Wedding Feast at Cana and Tintoretto’s deeply moving self-portrait. Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Correggio, Watteau, Caravaggio, Poussin, and Claude Lorrain along with many others are also present, as well as snapshot-sized versions of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Raphael’s Madonna and Child with Infant St. John the Baptist — also known as La Belle Jardiniere. These works are all immediately recognizable, and a handy, explanatory leaflet is at hand which makes identification much simpler than relying entirely on one’s art history visual memory.

As scholars and curators have long pointed out, Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre lacks the usual narrative or programmatic presentation of a history painting. It is, rather, an art history visual for a lively art professor’s classroom lecture or for a traveling show to the uninitiated in the hinterland. And even more interesting, the painting is a made-up depiction of the Louvre’s Salon Carré, the museum’s grandest exhibition space, with its rectilinear side walls recast as being at oblique angles, and its paintings chosen from those in the long gallery visible through the open, center door into the deep background of the painting.

Morse’s concoction of the Salon Carré as the grand Gallery of the Louvre is something like an enormous polyptych, with huge paintings on the side panels, large paintings on the wide expanse of the panels between the wings, and small paintings arranged as though being at the bottom rung of the predella of a multi-screen work of related paintings — much like the design of a complex religious altar piece. Connoisseurs may be disturbed to find the Mona Lisa relegated by Morse to that bottom rung.

Morse took the Gallery of the Louvre on tour; it was not successful, and added to this lack of commercial success was the financial inability of Morse’s friend, James Fenimore  Cooper, to purchase the work for $2,500. A Cooper relative — George Hyde Clarke of Cooperstown, New York, then  purchased the work for $1,200 and it later passed to John Townsend of Albany, New York, whose daughter Julia gave it to Syracuse University; its subsequent sale nearly 30 years ago to Daniel Terra brings us to the present.

Ironically, as though a reprise of the National Gallery’s showing in this same alcove space in 2005 of Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits, which depicts Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant in the Catskill Mountains, which had been recently purchased for a reported $35 million by Alice Walton and the Walton Family Foundation from The New York Public Library for the Waltons’ Chrystal Bridges Museum of  American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, Morse’s painting includes the depiction of himself, with his daughter, and his friend Cooper with Cooper’s wife and daughter.

[Ed. Note: For a discussion about this painting and its acquisition by the Walton Family Foundation, see “At the Museums,” InTowner, August 2005, at page 16 of the issue PDF, http://tinyurl.com/3w85sqb.]

And Durand’s Kindred Spirits had also been donated by a daughter, in this case, Bryant’s daughter Julia, to the Lenox Foundation in 1904 which, together with the Astor Library and the Tilden Trust, became The New York Public Library. Two classic New York paintings, migrating to the Terra Foundation in Chicago and the Walton’s Chrystal Bridges in Arkansas — transported on the back of big bucks!

Gallery of the Louvre was generously on loan to the National Gallery for a full year. The Terra Foundation’s primary missions include the furtherance of research and education on American art and the support of exhibitions of American art throughout the world.

Morse’s painting, for example, had been on exhibit at 36 venues in the 29 years since Daniel Terra purchased the painting in 1982 for $3.5 million from Syracuse University, the largest price paid for an American painting at that time. And prior to that time, from 1884 when the painting first entered the Syracuse collection on loan and after 1890 when it was given to the University, Gallery of the Louvre had been displayed in Syracuse’s Crouse College annual art exhibition and 20th century exhibitions throughout this country as well as in important European venues. The work has thrice been exhibited in Washington — in 1974 at the National Portrait Gallery, in 1982-‘83 at the National Gallery, and in 1983-‘84 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (home of Morse’s equally well-known history painting, the 1822-‘23 work titled The House of Representatives). Happily, both the Terra Foundation and the Walton’s have demonstrated a capacity for sharing their bounty and we are all the richer for it.