West And Morse
Two important and interesting works of the earliest American painters figure prominently in the collections. These are " Cupid and Psyche," by Benjamin West, and " Hall of the House of Representatives," by his pupil, Samuel F. B. Morse.
" Cupid and Psyche " is a late work of Benjamin West (1738-1820), having been painted in 1808, when the venerable artist was in his seventy-first year. Though not a characteristic work of the painter, in the general sense, the picture is an agree-able one, well suited to the purposes of a gallery of moderate proportions, being neither too large for the average wall space, nor of too set and formal a style to show well beside miscellaneous exhibits. On the contrary, the subject is eminently pleasing and decorative.
The composition is distinguished. The central group of youthful lovers is of a grace and lightness, with a certain clean elegance of line. They are posed against a stormy background composed of sky, land, and water. Cupid occupies the centre of the square canvas, and, with wings outstretched, bends over the partially reclining form of Psyche, who leans upon his knee and places one arm about his neck, while she looks into his face. The drapery falls from Psyche, revealing the smooth contour of her lithe body.
The picture was purchased in 1910 from a New York dealer. It is signed and dated " B. West. 1808," and by its title and dimensions appears to be one of the list of one hundred and fifty works by Benjamin West that were offered to the government for purchase, by the painter's sons, Raphael L. and Benjamin, for the nucleus of a national gallery.'
The picture belongs to the period of West's first reverses, when, after having enjoyed during a residence of half a century in London a position of power, as president of the Royal Academy, and as court painter to George III, the madness of the sovereign resulted in the immediate withdrawal of royal favour. West had been engaged by the king to paint for the hall of Windsor Chapel a series of decorations upon the life of Edward III. When, with the disability of the monarch, the new régime came into power, this handsome commission was countermanded, and while suffering these rebuffs, West received a blow from an unexpected quarter, and was deposed from the presidency of the Royal Academy. But this last reverse was only temporary and he was reelected president the next year, with but one dissenting vote.
Despite the loss of .royal patronage, and advancing years, West's greatest popular successes were yet to come. His chef d'oauvre, " Christ Rejected," was painted when the painter had reached the age of eighty years.
The career of Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) is fraught with interesting incident. He was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and educated at Yale College, from which he graduated in 1810. His talent for the profession, which ha served with distinction and honour until discouraged by his failure to obtain a commission from the government, developed early. It was Washington Allston who discovered and fostered his artistic talents, taking him abroad with him on his second trip to Europe, about 1810. Benjamin West, then at the zenith of his fame, also took a deep interest in Morse and gave him counsel and encouragement. In London he made the acquaintance of Charles Robert Leslie, who was a few years younger than himself, and who afterwards distinguished himself in art. Amongst his other intimates were Cole-ridge, the poet, Fuseli, the eccentric artist, Rogers, Charles Lamb, and others. While in London, he moved in excellent society.
From West and Allston, Morse acquired a reverence for the historical painting, repudiating portraiture — for which he had rare talents — as an inferior occupation, unworthy of his genius.
His letters reflect the influence which the two older painters exerted upon his aspirations and his style, and they too kept alive his patriotic American-ism. He quotes West as speaking of Philadelphia as " the future Athens of the world," and he says: " My ambition is to be among those who shall revive the glories of the fifteenth century; to rival the genius of a Raphael, or a Michelangelo, or a Titian. My ambition is to be enlisted in the constellation of genius which is now rising in this country (America). I wish to shine, not by a light borrowed from them, but to strive to shine the brightest."
In the year 1812 he had so far advanced in his studies as to attempt a large picture of a single figure. The subject was the "Death of Hercules," and, under the direction of his friend and master, Allston, who was at the same time engaged upon his "Dead Man Restored by Touching the Bones of Elisha," he modelled his figure of Hercules, as an exercise preparatory to the painting. This was Morse's first attempt at sculpture, but it won for the young artist a gold medal offered by the Society of Arts at the Adelphi.
In 1815 he returned to America to take up the despised portraiture as a means of recouping his fortunes. He settled in Concord, New Hampshire, and painted portraits, at fifteen dollars each, of the worthies of New Hampshire, making the tour of Concord, Walpole, Hanover, Windsor, and Ports-mouth, and in 1818, after his marriage with Miss Walker of Concord, went to Charleston, South Carolina, and painted many of the prominent citizens of that city, including James Monroe, for the Common Council. While in Charleston he helped to found the South Carolina Academy of the Fine Arts.
In New York, in 1826,. he was one of the prime movers against the old Academy of the Fine Arts, of which Trumbull was president, and in the launching of the National Academy of Design, of which he was the first president. To this office he was annually reelected until 1845, when he refused to be nominated, feeling that he could not devote the necessary time to the discharge of its duties, for the telegraph had become a success and absorbed his attention. In 1861 he was again prevailed upon to accept the presidency of the Academy for a year.
Morse made portraits of Lafayette, Henry Clay, Chancellor Kent, William Cullen Bryant, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Thorwaldsen, Jeremiah Evarts, and General Stark. His full-length of Lafayette, hung in the City Hall, New York, is one of the most admirable of the several portraits of the general made during his visit to the United States in 1824-1825.
In 1822 Morse painted the large picture of the " Hall of the House of Representatives." Upon this picture he centred many hopes, but the times were not yet ripe for works of that character. He had laid by sufficient means to enable him to give two years to the experiment, but when it was exhibited it was attended with but little success.
At one time a bill was introduced into Congress urging the purchase of the picture by the government, to be hung in the Capitol, which would have been a most fitting depository for so admirable a work, immortalizing one of the handsomest apartments of the original edifice. The Corcoran Gallery preserves a copy of the bill, which is here re-produced in part. The first quotation is from Primes' " Life of Morse," the second from the New York Daily Graphic, of May 26, 1873, and the third is the artist's own description of his work, written to accompany the picture.
" The painting of portraits was to him, as to all painters of original power, a weariness, and Mr. Morse resolved to attempt something in which it might be raised to the dignity of history. He conceived the idea of making a large picture of the 'House of Representatives' at Washington, presenting a view of the chamber, and portraits of individual members. For this purpose he went to Washington in November, 1821, and was kindly received by the president of the United States, who encouraged his grand undertaking, and gave him every facility for its execution. The architect of the House, Mr. Bullfinch, and all the officers of the House, entered cordially into the work, and encouraged him with their efficient aid.
" Mr. Morse obtained the use of one of the lower rooms of the Capitol, and there established his studio, to make it convenient for the members to sit to him for their portraits; and while they were not with him he could work upon the interior 0f the chamber. He writes to Mrs. Morse:
" ` I am up at daylight, have my breakfast and prayers over, and commence the labours of the day long before the workmen are called to work on the Capitol by the bell. This I continue unremittingly till one o'clock, when I dine, in about fifteen minutes, and then pursue my labours until tea, which scarcely interrupts me, as I often have my cup of tea in one hand and pencil in the other; between ten and eleven I retire to rest. This has been my course every day (Sundays, of course, excepted) since I have been here, making about fourteen hours study out of the twenty-four. This, you will say, is too hard, and that I shall injure my health. I can say that I never enjoyed better health, and my body, by the simple fare I live on, is disciplined to this course. As it will not be necessary to continue long so assiduously, I shall not fear to pursue it till this work is done. I receive every possible facility from all about the Capitol. The doorkeeper, a venerable man, has offered to light the great chandelier expressly for me to take my sketches in the evening, for two hours together,. for I shall have it a candle-light effect, when the room, already very splendid, will appear ten times more so.'
" His absorption in the picture was so great that he once arose in the night, mistaking the light of the moon for day, and went to his task, and at another time lost the reckoning of the days of the week, and attempted to enter the hall on Sunday, to pursue his work, and could hardly be persuaded to admit that he had lost a day. By the middle of December he was working sixteen hours a day. ` I never enjoyed better health; the moment I feel unwell I shall desist, but I am in the vein now, and must have my way. I have ,had a great deal of difficulty with the perspective of my picture. But I have conquered and have accomplished my purpose. After having drawn in the greater part three times, I have as many times rubbed it all out again. I have been several times, from daylight until eleven o'clock at night solving a single problem.'
" The work required far more time than he anticipated. December was gone before the portraits of the members were begun. On the 2nd of January, 1822, he writes:
" I have commenced today taking the likenesses of the members ; I find them not only willing to sit, but apparently esteeming it an honour. I shall take seventy of them, and perhaps more, all, if possible. I find the picture is becoming the subject of conversation, and every day gives me greater encouragement. I shall paint it on part of the great canvas when I return home. It will be eleven feet by seven and a half feet; that will divide the great canvas exactly into two equal parts, on one of which I shall paint the House of Representatives, and the other the Senate. It will take me until October next to complete it.'
" He painted eighty portraits on the great picture, and on the loth of February left Washington. By steady travel in. the stage he performed the journey from Washington to New Haven in six days, reaching his home and family on Saturday, the 16th of the month.
" As a work of art this picture was admirable, but it failed to attract the attention of the public. The artist's expectations of deriving profit from its exhibition were disappointed. It proved a loss to him pecuniarily, and was at length sold to an English gentleman, who took it to his own country, where it remained for several years. The artist lost trace and knowledge of it. While abroad in after years he made inquiries for it in vain. After a lapse of a quarter of a century he received the following letter from an artist friend:
" ' F. W. EDMONDS, ESQ., TO PROF. MORSE.
" ` NEW YORK, DECEMBER 7, 1847.
" ' MY DEAR SIR: I was applied to by a gentleman a few days since to call and see your picture of the " House of Representatives," which has been sent to this city from London, by a house who had advanced a sum of money upon it while in England. I called upon Mr. Durand, and he accompanied me on visiting it. We found it at the store of Coates & Co., No. 54 Exchange Place, nailed against a board partition in the third story, almost invisible from the dirt and dust upon it. It has evidently been rolled up, and, having no strainer, its surface is as uneven as the waves of the sea. In one place where it has been rolled the paint has peeled off in a narrow but long seam, but this is above the heads of the figures, and I think can be easily re-paired. Otherwise the picture seems to be in a good condition, if washed, stretched and varnished. They (Coates & Co.) hold it for sale, but in its present condition, few, excepting those very familiar with pictures, would look at it with a view of purchasing it. I suggested to them to wait till I could write to you before they showed it, as you would probably desire that it should be cleaned and varnished, and, if you were likely soon to be in the city, would prefer doing it yourself. I think it would not cost over ten dollars to put it in good order. Excuse me for troubling you in this matter, but, believing it to be one of the best works ever painted by you, and knowing it to be invaluable as containing portraits of many eminent statesmen of this country, I could not patiently be silent while in its present condition.
" ` Respectfully and truly yours,
" ' F. W. EDMONDS. " ' SAMUEL F. B. MORSE, ESQ.'
" The picture was rescued from its confinement, and became the property of the distinguished artist, Daniel Huntington, Esq., in whose private gallery it is preserved.
" In the winter of 1822, notwithstanding the great expense to which Mr. Morse had been subjected in producing this picture, and before he had realized anything from its exhibition, he made a donation of five hundred dollars to the library fund of Yale College, probably the largest donation, in proportion to the means of the giver, which that institution ever received." (Primes' " Life of Morse," pp. 122-135.)
(From the N. Y. Daily Graphic of May 26, 1873.) " In the studio of D. Huntington is a most interesting historical painting by Professor Morse, which bears the date of 1822. The canvas is eight feet by eleven feet and represents the old House of Representatives at the hour of lighting. In the centre hangs the great chandelier, and on a high stepladder a negro is turning up the Argand burners, which are evidently of interest, as the group on the platform, among whom are Story and Marshall, are regarding the operation. Scattered among the seats and around the room are members talking together, and one with his back towards the light is endeavouring to read. In the half gloom of the gallery are several persons, one of whom is Morse, the geographer and father of the professor; also Professor Silliman and an Indian Princess. There is the greatest fidelity in the painting of the room, and what renders the picture still more valuable is the fact that the faces are all portraits. The key to the picture cannot be found, but the faces of a number have been recognized by the likenesses as those of Chief-Justices Marshall and Story, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Governor Tomlinson of Connecticut, Gales and Seaton, of the National Intelligencer, and several others. The studies for these heads were made by Professor Morse in Washington, and afterwards were stolen, some of them finally finding their way into private collections, where they now are. The aim of the artist seems to have been to present a true picture of the House at that time, rather than to attempt anything picturesque. The whole work has an honest air, which adds to its historical interest. The costumes are those of that time, when gentlemen wore ruffled shirts and white ties. There is but little attempt at composition. The groups are arranged in broken lines, but the effect of the whole is a little stiff. The low, rich tones, the crimsons and warm greys are very agreeable. The perspective is good, and the painting, especially of the columns, is very solidly done. For its historical accuracy, its portraits, its representations of the costumes and the appearance of the old House of Representatives ; for its rendering of a phase of our national life now passed away, as well as from the fact that it is the work of one of the fathers of American Art, and one of the most illustrious of Americans, it deserves a place in the National Capitol, and none could be more appropriate than that same room it pictures, which is now fitted for a public gallery."
DESCRIPTION OF THE HALL OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES AT WASHINGTON TO ACCOMPANY MORSE'S PICTURE
" The Hall of the House of Representatives of the United States is, without doubt, one of the most splendid legislative halls in the world. Foreigners, as well as those of our own countrymen who have travelled abroad, agree in this opinion.
" Its general form is semi-circular, having the speaker's desk in the centre of the greatest diameter, with a considerable space in its rear. The diameter of the semi-circle is ninety-five feet, the other diameter is eighty feet. The extreme height is sixty feet. The room is covered by a half dome, resting upon a Corinthian entablature, which is supported by twenty-two massy columns.
" The dome is ornamented by painted imitations of sunken panels, with a flower in the centre of each: the panels are separated by a braided ornament.
" The entablature is of greyish sandstone, richly ornamental ; all the ornaments are exquisitely sculptured. The eagle upon the frieze over the speaker's chair is ten feet between the wings and very beautifully wrought; above the eagle upon the entablature is a statue of Liberty, of plaster of Paris ; the piece of a fluted column entwined by a serpent is an accompaniment of this statue, and is all that is seen in the picture.
" The columns, 28 feet in height, are made of breccia, a concrete of various kinds of stones, of all sizes and colours ; the capitals and bases are of white marble, sculptured in Italy, in imitation of one of the most beautiful antique remains preserved in Stuart's Athens.
" Between the columns and behind them are suspended curtains of scarlet moreen, fringed with yellow drops. Under the curtains in the semicircle is the gallery, in front of which is an iron railing.
The door is on the extreme right, and is of fine white marble; over the door is a marble statue of History in the car of Time, with a book, in which she is recording passing events ; the car is upon a portion of a celestial globe; the wheel of the car is the clock.
" Between the fourth and fifth pillars from the door is a stove of stone, highly ornamented, which admits warm air through the circular openings near the top ; there are also openings behind some of the pillars for the admission of warm air from furnaces below.
" The speaker's desk is to the left under an octagonal canopy; the canopy is a dome, covered with pink coloured silk, surmounted by an eagle of brass, and resting on an entablature, which is sup-ported from the back part by four fluted Corinthian columns; from the edges of the canopy is the speaker's chair and desk on which are the Bible, papers, inkstand, and silver-branch candlesticks; the access to the chair is by six or seven steps, the balusters of which are seen a little below the chair.
"Before the speaker's desk is the clerk's table, which is of mahogany, on which the clerk is leaning, and upon which are the papers of the House.
A little nearer the middle of the picture, upon the stone pier in the distance, is a bronze coloured frame, surmounted by an eagle, containing the interesting print of the Declaration of Independence, published by J. Binn, Esq., of Philadelphia, rendered doubly valuable as the finest specimen as yet produced of that class of American engraving.
" Under this print is a fireplace ; the opposite fireplace is indicated by the light on the faces of Messrs. Gales and Seaton; the platform on which these gentlemen stand and on which the judges of the Supreme Court and others also stand, is three or four feet above the level of the floor of the House; upon this platform those only are admitted who are privileged by the rules of the House; the sofas seen between each of the pillars are also appropriated to this purpose.
" The chandelier is of brass, and contains 30 Argand's lamps ; there is also on each of the pillars a similar lamp, not lighted, as seen in this picture.
" Through the windows on the right is seen fire-light from the lobbies; through the middle window is the direction of the post-office of the House, which is in the lobby.
" Directly under the left of the chandelier in the distant part of the room is one of the boxes appropriated to the stenographers ; there are other similar boxes not seen in the picture on each side of the speaker's desk.
" The desks of the members are arranged in six concentric circles, each circle of seats rising a little above the preceding one, as you recede from the centre; these are divided from the door to the speaker's desk. The desks are of mahogany, furnished each with a drawer, ink-stand, sand-box, &c., &c.; the chairs are of mahogany, with stuffed backs, and seats covered with hair cloth. The floor is covered with elegant Brussels carpeting.
" In the foreground is seen the letter-box with the letter carrier in the act of taking out the letters; by the side of the box are reams of paper for the use of the House.
" The time chosen is at candle lighting, while the members are assembled for an evening session. The portraits were taken at Washington about a year ago; each person sat for his likeness, with the exception of Hon. William Lowndes, whose portrait was sketched from the gallery.
" The primary design of the present picture is not so much to give highly-finished likenesses of the individuals introduced as to exhibit to the public a faithful representation of the national hall, with its furniture and business during the session of Congress. If the individuals are simply recognized by their acquaintance as likenesses, the whole de-sign of the painter will be answered.
(Signed) " SAMUEL F. B. MORSE. " New Haven, February 1st, 1823."
The bill failed to pass, and the picture, which had been deposited in the Corcoran Gallery in 1874, was finally purchased by that institution in June, 1911, from the estate of Daniel Huntington, through his son, Charles R. Huntington.
A still more bitter disappointment was reserved for Morse, with his failure to secure a commission to paint one of the panels of the rotunda, in the Capitol, in Washington. The selection of artists to paint the great historical pictures for these panels, was referred to the committee in Congress of which John Quincy Adams, ex-president, was a member. Morse, strongly endorsed by Washington Allston and by the National Academy, confidently expected to be chosen to paint at least one or two of these pictures. Mr. Adams wished to throw the competition open to the artists of all countries, saying that there were no American artists of sufficient ability to paint such great pictures. This roused the ire of J. Fenimore Cooper, whose caustic reply to Mr. Adams' assertions, appeared anonymously in the New York Evening Post, and was attributed to Morse. The truth came out too late, and Morse's name was rejected by the committee.
The struggles incident to the invention and development of the telegraph, coupled with this blow to his ambitions, turned Morse from the practice of art, but to the end of his life, he was deeply interested and active in any scheme for its advancement. As a tribute of affectionate esteem for his friend and master, Washington Allston, he purchased and presented to Yale College the latter's "Prophet Jeremiah Dictating to the Scribe Baruch."
( Originally Published 1912 )
The Art Treasures of Washington:
The Development Of Washington
The Corcoran Gallery Of Art
The New Building
The Nucleus Of The Collections : The Hudson River School
Influence Of The Dusseldorf School Upon American Painters
Links In The Chain Of American Painters
Early Portrait Painters
West And Morse
Read More Articles About: The Art Treasures of Washington