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Samuel F. B. Morse

Born: 1791, Charlestown, Massachusetts, United States of America
Died: 1872, New York, New York, United States of America
Gender: Male

Biography

In addition to his endeavors as scientific inventor and politician, Samuel F. B. Morse had a wide-ranging career as a painter, art educator, and leader in the New York art world of the early nineteenth century. Son of a well-known geographer and Calvinist minister, Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and attended Yale College, where he began painting portrait miniatures. While working for a Boston bookseller, Morse studied with Washington Allston, one of America’s leading history and portrait painters; in pursuit of further training, he traveled with Allston to London in 1811. There, Morse studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, Britain’s most prestigious art school, and studied masterpieces of classical antiquity in museums. Buoyed by the positive reception in England of his first ambitious history paintings and eager to elevate artistic standards and interest in his native country, Morse returned to America in 1815. His efforts to introduce his countrymen to the ennobling art of history painting met with indifference, however, and the painter found a market only for portraits, which he executed on demand in New England and in Charleston, South Carolina.

In 1824, Morse opened a studio in New York City, which was emerging as the premier art center of the nation. The following year, in his efforts to galvanize American artists, he was instrumental in the founding of the National Academy of Design, nineteenth-century America’s most important art school, exhibition venue, and arbiter of artistic standards; Morse served as the Academy’s first president. Hungering for contact with the artistic riches of Europe, in 1829 Morse traveled to France and Italy to study and copy masterpieces; he also painted several Italian landscapes. In Paris in 1831 he began his most ambitious project: Gallery of the Louvre (TF 1992.51), a visual guide to the highlights of Europe’s most famous art collection and a painted treatise on artistic training that projects Morse himself as a link between the European art past and America’s cultural future.

Morse completed the painting on his return to New York in 1832, but its public reception was discouraging. Despite his appointment to an honorary professorship of art at New York University, Morse devoted increasing time to other pursuits. In the late 1830s he completed his experimental development of the telegraph, which would revolutionize communications; he also ran for Mayor of New York on the anti-immigrant Nativist ticket. In 1839, after meeting Louis Daguerre (1789–1851), who had recently unveiled the first practical photographic process, Morse introduced America to the daguerreotype. Morse devoted much of the remainder of his life to promoting his inventions and protecting his patents. When he died, at the age of eighty, Morse was a patriarchal figure lauded as an American scientist and philanthropist, his artistic career overshadowed by his later achievements.
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