But having forsaken art for applied science, his second career so engrossed him that in later life he could visit Paris without giving the Louvre and its art treasures a single thought. The two phases of his life were separate and distinct; and the latter precluded thought or interest in the former.
Although practically all the American artists who preceded him, with the notable exception of Colonel John Trumbull, were men of scant educational advantages who rose to portraiture from sign painting and kindred work, Morse was of the New England intellectual Brahm'n caste. He was born in 1791 at Charlestown, Massachusetts, where Jedediah Morse, his father, was a distinguished Congregational minister with a great reputation as a fundamentalist and pungent lengthy preacher. As the author of the first geography and gazetteer written in the United States, he was also in correspondence with many men of letters, both at home and in England.
Such families put great store by formal education. And so Samuel went first to Phillips Andover, and then to Yale. His skill at delineating portraits was first apparent during his undergraduate days, when he did a number of miniatures on ivory. But his reverend father and equally forceful mother frowned on an artist's career. And shortly after graduation, in 1810, their son was placed with a Mr. Mallory, a Charlestown bookseller, to learn the much more acceptable business of book publishing.
Young Samuel acquiesced, but devoted himself to painting after working hours, and within a year his parents recognized where his interest and talent lay. He was released from the bookshop and in January, 1811, was allowed to start on a career as an artist. For about six months he painted at home with little or no teaching. One of his first efforts was an historical canvas, "The Landing of the Pilgrims." It must have shown distinct promise, for by July he sailed for London in the charge of Washington Allston, already a New England artist of standing, and assured of a parental allowance that would permit study there under Benjamin West and Allston and at the Royal Academy.
In August, 1815, Morse returned home against the advice of West, who had seen his heroic canvas, "The Judgment of Apollo." This was intended for entry in the Royal Academy exhibition in the late fall in the hope of winning the historical competition prize. The winner had to be present to receive the award and West, after studying Morse's painting, urged, "You had better remain."
But the young artist had already met with some little success in painting portraits in the provinces, particularly in Bristol, at ten guineas each, and felt that it was time he returned to Charlestown and began earning a living. So he left England. His canvas, on which he had been working for over a year, was barred from that year's exhibition at the Royal Academy, of which Benjamin West was then president.
One of Morse's first commissions after reaching home was a likeness of ex-President John Adams, undertaken for half price for Joseph Deleplaine's repository of Lives and Portraits of Distinguished American Characters. Living at home in Charlestown evidently offered little opportunity for securing portrait commissions; so, like most American artists of that time, Morse became a traveller.
In August, 1816, he was in Concord, New Hampshire, and much pleased with his success. A letter reported seven portraits at fifteen dollars each. He must have been a rapid workman, for he also reported doing five portraits in eight days. In September of the same year he went to Windsor, Vermont, where he secured seven commissions and then moved on to Hanover, New Hampshire, to do portraits of Judge and Mrs. Woodward. After that he went back to Concord, where sixteen-year-old Lucretia Walker was a subject of great personal interest, and then on to Portsmouth, to do a portrait of Governor Langdon.
Morse not only was a good artist but he
knew how to get commissions. His usual procedure on reaching a new town
was to get an order for the portrait of an important person. Then the
painting was exhibited and, with luck, commissions for other portraits
resulted. At Portsmouth he received so many orders that he had to return
the next year. In 1818, Charleston, South Carolina, with its wealthy planters,
beckoned him. Here his first work was a portrait of his uncle, Dr. James
E. B. Finley, a prominent Charlestonian, and for six months thereafter
he was busy at $400 a portrait.
During the following two years he again spent part of his time in Charleston. Among his important clients was Colonel John A. Allston, who gave him commissions for many likenesses of members of his family and friends, frequently paying twice the fee asked. His season of 1821 found the Charleston market for portraits somewhat surfeited, but by November he was in Washington undertaking a most ambitious work. This was a large canvas showing the House of Representatives in session. It now hangs in the Corcoran Gallery there.
The work involved was appalling, for the painting included eighty individual portraits of members of the House. Morse had planned this as a painting that could be sent on a round of exhibitions and so earn him a good return from admission fees, but it proved a financial loss instead. In fact, for the next year and more his prospects were not bright. He tried portrait painting in Albany, New York, but arrived there at the wrong season for good commissions. In 1823 he ventured to New York, taking a "painting room" on Broadway opposite Trinity Church. But it was uphill work getting commissions and he went back to New Haven, Connecticut, where his parents and wife were living.
By 1825 he was back in New York City where he received the appointment to paint the full-length portrait of General Lafayette, already referred to. The fee was fixed at $ 1,000 and expenses of going to Washington to do the portrait. This was an important commission. Among his competitors were such artists as Vanderlynn, Sully, Peale, Jarvis, Waldo, Inman, and others. Assuredly, Morse might now feel that as an artist he had arrived.
In February he went to Washington to start work on the Lafayette canvas but found the Marquis so pressed with visitors that it was difficult work. Then came the tragic news of the sudden death of his wife in New Haven, relayed by the slow postal service of the time. So the Morse Lafayette, probably the high point in his artistic career, was not completed until sometime the next year.
The year 1826 also marked the forming of the National Academy of the Arts of Design, of which Morse was the first president and was consistently re-elected until 1845. He now began lecturing on the art of design, and his lectures were very popular. He had pupils who worked in his studio in his house at 20 Canal Street. Three years later, seemingly at the height of his career, the artist decided to return to Europe to study the great masters in the galleries of France and Italy. He took with him many commissions to make copies of important works of art.
He was gone until 1832. In 1835 he became professor of the Literature of the Arts of Design. But by now the seeds had been sown for his scientific career. A dinner-table conversation during the voyage home suggested to him the possibility of an electric telegraph. He worked on his invention steadily until, in 1844, the famous message, flashed from Washington to Baltimore, changed Samuel F. B. Morse from an artist to an inventor of one of the most astounding feats of science.
But it was a political manoeuvre that gave Morse a savage push away from art and toward his second career. It took place in 1834 in the United States Congress. Morse, learning that four artists were to be chosen to do the four paintings needed to complete the set in the Rotunda of the Capitol, applied for one of the corn-missions. One of the committee of the House of Representatives, under which this came, was John Quincy Adams. He forthwith submitted a resolution opening the competition for these paintings to foreign artists, giving as his opinion that there were no artists in this country of sufficient talent properly to execute such monumental works.
Naturally there was a storm of protest from friends of the outstanding artists. One of these was an unsigned reply in the New York Evening Post. Written by James Fenimore Cooper, it was erroneously attributed to Morse. Adams was enraged and as a result Morse's name was removed from the list of artists under consideration. It was a bitter blow to Morse and from then on his interest in art waned. Years later he wrote to Cooper:
Alas! My dear sir, the very name of pictures produces a sadness of heart I cannot describe. Painting has been a smiling mistress to many, but she has been a cruel jilt to me. I did not abandon her, she abandoned me. I have taken scarcely any interest in painting for many years. Will you believe it? When last in Paris in 1845, I did not go into the Louvre, nor did I visit a single picture gallery. . . . Except for some family portraits, valuable to me for their likenesses only, I could wish that every picture I ever painted was destroyed. I have no wish to be remembered as a painter. My ideal of that profession was, perhaps, too exalted-I may say is too exalted. I leave it to others more worthy to fill the niches of art.