Sometimes Failure Works Out Pretty Well

The past few months have been the first where I’ve spent dedicated time researching my doctoral dissertation on the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Anglo-American artist Benjamin West and his family and workshop. My research involves a very wide-ranging cast of characters, and so a lot of the work I’ve done so far is background reading on various individuals who trained under West between 1765 and 1820…quite a range of dates.

Although I’m grappling with a few dozen artists (all American) who flitted in and out of West’s life over the course of three generations, there are two who stand out: Samuel F.B. Morse, and Robert Fulton.

Why do I like Morse and Fulton so much? Because even though I’m studying them in the context of painting and Benjamin West, they’re best known for something completely separate: the wildly influential inventions they had a part in creating, the telegraph (heard of Morse code?) and the (first commercially viable) steamboat.

Both men knew about West because of his status as the only truly internationally famous American-born artist to that point (John Singleton Copley was more skilled, but far less of a self-promoter and more easily discouraged). The crux of my dissertation is an examination of West’s desires to become recognized as the father of an “American school” of art and one of his tactics was to welcome any American-born or raised artist into his London studio for training, so that he may eventually leave and garner acclaim as a student of West, as well as an artist in his own right. Fulton and Morse both tapped into that notion. Fulton was born outside Philadelphia and his parents knew West’s father, so it was only logical that he travel to train with West once he decided to be a painter; Morse was younger than Fulton and so became an artist later in West’s life, and followed the same route as others in the 1810s, first training as a student under one of West’s students, Washington Allston, before traveling with his teacher to work with West.

Morse I’m more familiar with at this point, because he spent more time in West’s workshop, had a longer career as a painter before turning fully to the telegraph, and because his last gasp at artistic fame, the Gallery of the Louvre, is on display at the National Gallery of Art and I’ve been doing some background reading on it to familiarize myself for a Study Day tomorrow.

The Gallery of the Louvre was Morse’s attempt to collect and present the great works from that museum – Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is a small speck on a wall of masterpieces – for an American audience he wanted to expose to the greatness of history painting. It flopped before an audience that was more receptive to portraiture and to narrative painting, elements which appear in the Louvre but are not the focus.

Around the time Morse was finishing and exhibiting Gallery of the Louvre, he was beginning to work on the telegraph. A decade-and-a-half later and by then an established inventor, Morse received a letter from his old friend, the author James Fenimore Cooper, whom he had spent time with in Paris and who appears along with his family in Louvre. Cooper was low on money and inquired if Morse wanted to buy back a painting he sold to the author in the 1830s. After mentioning his own financial issues, Morse then wrote at length about his relationship with painting:

…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 sometimes indulge a vague dream that I may paint again. It is rather the memory of past pleasures when hope was enticing me onward, only to deceive me at last. Except some family portraits, valuable to me from their likenesses only, I could wish that every picture I ever painted was destroyed.

A harsh reflection by an individual who had previously been a strong advocate for the arts in America. Regret and shame, but also coming from a man who continued on to become a great success in another field in his 40s. It shows the impact art had on Morse’s life, that even at 58 years old he still couldn’t bear to think about the medium.

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