Starting Wednesday, September 16, the Seattle Art Museum will display a piece from one of the most famous Renaissance Men of recent centuries, Samuel Morse. Known for his invention of the electromagnetic telegraph and Morse code, he was first a master painter. His magnum opus condensed dozens of other paintings into one massive canvas (6′ x 9′), titled the “Gallery of the Louvre,” based on the appearance of the Salon Carré. The salon style hanging offered a dense display of masterworks by 16th, 17th and 18th centuries artists, including the Renaissance masters Leonardo (notably, the “Mona Lisa”) and Titian (whose “Pilgrims of Emmaus” is seen just above the central door), all of which Morse painstakingly copied over the course of a year.
Morse was not the only artist inspired by this gallery. Italian painter Giuseppe Castiglione made his own in 1861, angling the piece in a more natural, dynamic way that also captures the ornate ceiling of the gallery, but makes the paintings on the wall less distinct. Morse’s one-point perspective is more in the vein of the earlier Dutch and Flemish painting, even in the way he stages the figures of the gallery in isolated poses, and his colors are warmer, more uniform and muted. (The central male figure is a portrait of the artist himself, instructing the woman in front of him.)
In a way, this was an early attempt by Morse to communicate something over long distances. At the time, travel between the states and Europe was limited, and many Americans would never see the masterworks at the Louvre, or even a museum in their own country. This painting was his way of showing the American public a glimpse of the artistic glories of the old continent.
The painting is beautiful and technically strong, but unfortunately was not a sensation at the time. Morse turned his attention to developing the telegraph afterward. He never lost his appreciation for art, but his artistic career ended with “Gallery of the Louvre.” It is apt to see the painting arrive in Seattle, where many artists and arts advocates are also involved in technology and sometimes even integrate the two worlds.
Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” will be on display at Seattle Art Museum from September 16, 2015 through January 10, 2016 as part of the exhibition Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention. A gallery key identifying all the artworks contained within Morse’s painting will also be on display.