Friday, April 27, 2007

Inventive Genius

Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph machine (maybe) and namesake of Morse code after he was a painter of some achievement, was born on this date in 1791. Above is his most famous painting, The Gallery of the Louvre, which is really more of a painting about painting and paintings in museums.

The Gallery of the Louvre remains one of the great art history paintings in how it shows the crowded presentation of the Louvre circa early 1830s. Morse’s painting also amuses because it shows the Mona Lisa hanging inconspicuously near the bottom of the wall, to the right of the doorway. It would be many years before Da Vinci’s work would achieve the renown it has today and find a home behind bulletproof glass. (Donald Sassoon’s Becoming Mona Lisa documents the evolution of the Mona Lisa into a cultural icon. The chapter on the Mona Lisa in Monica Bohm-Duchen’s The Private Life of a Masterpiece: Uncovering the Forgotten Secrets and Hidden Life Histories of Iconic Works of Art does a nice job, too.)

Morse typifies the Renaissance man of the 19th century, essentially dropping his artistic career to pursue the science of telegraphy. Unfortunately, Morse also typifies another strain of 19th century America—religious justification of slavery, saying that “Slavery per se is not sin.” (“Per se”?!?) Despite this shortsightedness characteristic of his time, Morse remains an interesting figure in early American art.

{UPDATE: Welcome readers of David Packwood's Art History Today blog! David is teaching a course on the history of the Louvre and has other paintings showing how it looked back in the day.}

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