Category Archives: Week 3

Samuel B. Morse and the National Gallery of Art

By Jing Chen, Shalina Chatlani, and Zhihui Yu


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We visited the National Gallery of Art during last week’s class in order to understand museums or art galleries’ roles and functions more practically and deeply. During this tour, we got the chance to appreciate great American paintings in National Gallery of Art, from which we could have a better understanding of  American art history.

First, we ran into the Voyage of life series(1842) by Thomas Cole. His work traces the journey of an archetypal hero along the “River of Life.” The NGA says that Cole’s paintings depict an “intrepid voyager” who “may be read as a personification of America, itself at an adolescent stage of development.” In the early 1800s, sons of the newborn country were ambitious to establish their own traditions and genres. Samuel Morse was one of the artists who practiced to advance arts in America. When we enter the room where there is The House of Representatives (1822-23), we felt like we should be prepared to the see some serious works.

It’s clear that Morse was dedicated to his craft of being an American historical painter. As Alexander and Alexander write in Museums in Motion, “exhibition, education, or interpretation-the conveyance of culture and a commitment to community or social welfare have grown to be important aims for the museum in the last century.” Thinking of Morse’s other masterwork Gallery of the Louvre(1833), we can feel his ambitions to create works with historical significances of American national identity and transport European art traditions to the US. There are many portraits of important historical figures hanging in the room. They are all witnesses of American history. We sensed this “reality” of museum that cannot be sensed when you just scan your computer through your cold screen at home. The canvas included careful renderings of architecture and people.

Stepping outside of the artwork, its frame, the room it’s inside, and the museum itself allows the individual to better understand the role of the artwork within a larger context. One way to understand these dimensions of experience is seeing them as ‘interfaces,’ or windows to meaning. Alexander and Alexander in Museums in Motion reflect upon the original function of museums as transitioning over time based on both intentional and unintentional political, aesthetic, and educational purposes. In analyzing the artwork, it’s helpful to understand the context within which artifacts were chosen to be placed in the Museum. For instance, Alexander and Alexander explained how in Rome ‘museums’ included artifacts that the state had acquired after conquering another region. This context of acquisition is important to understand, because the artifact is not just a stand alone piece; it’s actually very political. At the time, the variety of pieces showed the grandeur of the Roman empire and its military strength.  By stepping outside of the work and looking toward the purpose of the rooms within the museum, the visitor can gain a clear idea of why certain artifacts were important to the curators and the content of the artifact might have had importance in society.

According to McClellan in his book on art museums, the mission of Washington’s National Gallery of Art “is to serve the United States of America…by preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art.” The National Gallery’s historic American collection was transformative, allowing for an enriched and enhanced presentation of the history of American painting in the permanent collection galleries.  In Morse’s time, the American Arts were not treated very seriously, but thanks to the efforts of him and his peers, American collectors started to collect and support their own arts. And seeing the room within which Samuel B. Morse’s painting House of Representatives was placed, one can tell that it is important. Looking around the room, the visitor can see that many of the pieces were part of the Corcoran collection and the Andrew W. Mellon collection. Mellon was instrumental in acquiring historical artifacts throughout American history, and many of these pieces were obviously important to have come under his radar. And, Morse’s painting, which was part of the Corcoran collection, must be very important to the museum, since it is being placed within this group of works.

The way the pieces are arranged within the room itself shows that Morse is considered to be part of an important collection of historical paintings on American politics and culture–which is exactly what Morse had been working for his entire life. He’s placed within a room with his teacher, Benjamin West, as well as other artists that were known for depicting important historical figures and events. Understanding this concept is important to recognizing the context within the artwork itself should be interpreted. Just blindly looking toward a painting without the background of the interface museum may result in the visitor losing out on some important details. At first glance, it just seems like a painting of congressional figures, but it’s truly much more symbolic and complex. Finally, seeing the artwork itself as an interface for what was happening during society at the time is important as well. The painting is more than just a depiction of an event; it is truly a “window” into what might have been happening during a particular time period, and it’s the artist’s attempt to steer the viewer toward a particular viewpoint. This painting represents a functioning congressional house, which was not the case at the time. But, it was the ideal that Morse wanted.

Works Cited:

Alexander, Edward P. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1979. Print.

Corcoran Gallery of Art et al., eds. Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, D.C. : Manchester,Vt: Corcoran Gallery of Art ; in association with Hudson Hills Press, 2011. Print.  

McClellan, Andrew. The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: U of California, 2008. Print.

 

 

The Inner Logic of the NGA – Yingxin Huang and Ojas Patel

The first time when I stepped on the white stairs towards the National Gallery of Art, I could feel a sense of solemnity surrounded by the neo-classical architectures, where there are numerous well-engraved colossal pillars as the structure. Browsing around at the fountain place, I found the gallery in a symmetric arrangement, with consecutive exhibition rooms on both sides of the fountain.

One of the most striking features of the rotunda is the number of bodies – the general feeling that there is something to be marveled judging solely by the fact our bags were checked and there were so many people coming in and out. Heavy foot traffic has always felt like a good indicator of judging the cultural significance of a space, and the National Gallery certainly met the criteria. Furthermore, it was a diverse group of people coming in and out, which to me signified that this was not a privileged space of dominant narrative aggrandizement, which is something I was wary of going in.

Walking through the hallway, we passed a delicate garden and entered the exhibition room, and finally we saw the House of Representatives, a masterpiece of Samuel Morse. The large-scale painting is placed in the middle of one side of the room, and the other side is the portrait of the family of George Washington. As a visitor, I was immediately attracted by the two large-scale paintings in such a squared room, and they are somewhat in a similar historical context, reflecting their significance in the American history. In almost every exhibition room, there are two couches in the center, providing a resting place for visitors and in the meantime, a perfect seat to enjoy the masterpieces in the room. I sat in the soft couch, staring at the House of Representatives, and I felt like I couldn’t be more comfortable and pleasant to appreciate such a great masterpiece in the gallery.

Moreover, I always wonder how different visitors appreciate the exhibitions. I usually try to explore the inner logic of the exhibition display. Is the paintings categorized by time order, painter or content? What kinds of relationships can be discovered room by room? Therefore, I believe some visitors like me may pay close attention to the specific order of the exhibition. As the visitors move forward room by room, they may find the answers from the styles of the paintings, the annotations or the foreword of the rooms. While others, especially for those general tourists, may find it tiring and boring in this way, and would rather focus on the most well-known masterpieces so that they will save more time to go through the whole gallery. I used to bring my friend, who’s from Baltimore, to this gallery for a visit. She picked up several leaflets with introductions of the most famous paintings in the gallery, quickly looked for the locations of them, and went straightly towards the paintings one by one. It took us around 2 hours to go through the whole east wing of the gallery. The leaflet, as a means of promotion, it will include information of the most famous paintings and painters; as an educational tool, it may provide more detailed information such as introductions of certain masterpieces, purpose of the exhibition, and even monthly highlights of related workshops. In this respect, the leaflets (or booklets) exactly indicate the changing role and function of the galleries and museums, which are developing from private collections to public exhibitions, from a symbol of wealth and social status to a place of conservation, research and education. “Once the museum admitted the public, its exhibition function became predominant. Collecting, conservation and research in the main supported the development of exhibitions.”  “Exhibition, education or interpretation – the conveyance of culture – and a commitment or social welfare have grown to be important aims for the museum in the last century” (Alexander 9).

And this highlights the utility of interface as a guiding theoretical framework for museums. The grander sign system of art history and artistic representation is necessarily dynamic and always in flux. Because any art piece is necessarily a product of the continuum of art history, which it reflexively represents, the museum design plays a critical role in culturally placing the art pieces that compose the exhibit. Furthermore, museums are a symbol of an egalitarian political systems as exemplified by the role of the Louvre in the French Revolution. Not only did revolutionary leaders make a point of preserving art pieces from conquests and opening up museums to the general public (previously privileged to the rich), the Louvre was to function as a central museum in a museum system (Alexander 29-30). This marked a sharp turn in the role of art in a democratic society.

What a treasure that move ended up being, as we owe museums in the contemporary age to this turn. One major function of museums is to serve as a refuge or asylum for art pieces, so that art can be preserved and we have can have access to a fuller understanding of art (Buren 191). And a crucial function this is, because ultimately, the sign system of art functions as a network. The continuum of art can only function as a sign system and a narrative if we have a network of art pieces to represent this fuller sign system and narrative. Preserving art and displaying them in museums allows us to fully realize Latour’s definition of network, which is to identify the major actants that are crucial for the sign system to exist (799). Between the history of acquisition of an art piece, the production of a piece, and the presentation of it in a museum, there are several modes of entry into identifying a piece of art into the many networks it belongs to. Furthermore, fundamentally, the choices made in presentation (where the piece is hung, what pieces it is hung next to) fundamentally restructures the tight network it exists in as the actor embodies the network (Latour 800). So the National Gallery, aside from housing and preserving the art in its possession, actively defines the network of art which we as a democratic people must be critical of to ensure the space is properly representative.

Works Cited

Alexander, Edward P. and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, 2nd ed. Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007.

Buren, Daniel. “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, ed. by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Latour, Bruno. “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 796–810.

C^2 – Group 1

As the readings for this week make clear, the context within which an artwork is viewed constructs our understanding of it. This includes the physical positioning of the work – from it’s place in the frame frame, to the wall, to the gallery space, to the museum, to the location in a city, etc. – as well as the conceptual and intellectual positioning of the work – within literature and history. What most struck me seeing Samuel Morse’s House of Representatives at the National Gallery of Art were the handling/rendering of the scene itself – the scale of the work, the depth of space, and the luminosity of surface that Morse conveys – and the interplay of Morse’s House of Representatives with its opposite in the room, Edward Savage’s The Washington Family (1789), as well as with the other portraits in the room.

Both Morse’s House of Representatives and Savage’s The Washington Family engage with and conflate themes of art and culture, politics, history and power, and science and technology.

Positioned opposite of one another, the two works are clearly in conversation with one another and contribute to a richer understanding overall.

Most notably, the two works address two opposing institutions that make up American governance, the President and the Congress; just outside of the walls of the NGA, the buildings that house these two institutional bodies stand opposite of one another, the White House and the Capitol.

“Investigate things in relation to their context” (O’Dohery, p.7)

Physically within the gallery space, both paintings open up the room and suggest a sort of theatric performance that is different from reality, but that suggest what the artists idealize reality to be. In the case of Morse’s House of Representatives, he portrays Congress engaging in an orderly and civil debate, whereas in reality Congress was chaotic and unruly as they debated controversial legislations such as the Slave Trade Act of 1820 and the Missouri Compromise of 1821. The red curtains that adorn the walls of the US Capitol mirror the red curtains in Savage’s, The Washington Family, and here these curtains look very much like the red curtains that are typically seen on the stage of a theatre performance. It seems that Savage is also attempting to proactively construct and write history through his “historical painting”: here what lies beyond the stage is untouched land, and the map laid open on his desk as well as the blank globe on the floor suggest military conquest, colonization, and a history of domination that is awaiting to be written on a “blank page” (which of course was in actuality not blank at all). Again considering the two paintings as in conversation with one another, while Morse’s Congress is likely addressing a domestic issue of conquest and domination – over black bodies and slavery – Savage appears more concerned with international dominance and colonization. Given that Washington gestures to the map with a sword and his wife with a fan, we can presume that Savage is implying a political and cultural dominance that the United States has/will have over the rest of the world.

Now let us take a walk outside of the National Gallery of Art. Next door to the National Gallery of Art is the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Both buildings sporting neoclassical architecture, similar to most of the iconic buildings around the National Mall. This classical theme is not limited to the physical architecture of the buildings. These two museums also illustrate classical ideals of exhibitions. The NGA and the NMNH opened during the peak of the ‘modern’ exploration and exhibition. Usually, whatever was considered historical (from a very eurocentric perspective) was placed in art museums. While, things that were not considered ‘euro-historical’, but ‘exotic’, were put into the natural history museums with the natural exhibitions.

Today, one could take a look around the National Mall from the NGA and see few non-neoclassical buildings. Two of these new buildings are, the National Museum of the American Indian(NMAI) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The architecture of these establishments was designed to separate them from the classical look that dominates the National Mall. This was done for many reasons, one being the fact – that the collections within and purpose behind the NMAI and NMAAHC were not founded on western aristocratic exploration.

 

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National Museum of Natural History (1911)

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National Museum if the American Indian (2004)

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National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016)

References:

Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition (Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007).

Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Bruno Latour, “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 796–810.

Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery SpaceBerkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986.

National Museum of Natural History

National Museum of the American Indian

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Week 3- Group 2 Discussion

Morse’s House of Representatives depicts a quintessential American image where a man lights a candle in the middle of the House floor.  Even though we can appreciate the painting online, it is totally different to see the actual painting on canvas in the National Gallery of Art. It is hard for us to imagine the actual size of this painting when we see the painting for the first time online. The large canvas enabled us to imagine that we are standing inside the House of Representatives and acting like a witness or observer like Morse. It feels like some senators in the painting are watching us when we see the painting at a specific angle. This experience provided us an opportunity to travel across time and space, feeling the atmosphere of the House of Representatives in the 19th century. Only the interface of the museum allows the audience to have such an immersive experience. The build of the room, the lighting, and the decor are part of this interface. The sofas in the exhibition room not only allow visitors to have a rest but also create a space which permits visitors to spend more time appreciating paintings in a more comfortable way.

While we enjoyed viewing this painting, we want to talk more about the NGA as a whole, as an important institution situated on the Washington Mall.

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When looking at the National Gallery of Art from the outside, it is hard not to notice the architecture, the way it stands proudly in the middle of the Washington Mall. Its neo-classical architecture echoes with the sentiments of the old masters. Just by looking at it, you know that great works of art are to be found inside. How do you know this? The symbolism of the architecture, of course, the images of majesty, elegance, and elitism that it evokes. In the Alexander article, Mark Lilla is quoted as saying, “The museum is an “empowering” institution, meant to incorporate all who would become part of our shared cultural experience. Any citizen can walk into a museum and appreciate the highest achievements of his culture. If he spends enough time, he may be transformed” (Alexander 1). This is a very idealistic image of the museum, one that is not always translated into reality.

For example, Alexander explains that “The museum idea was barely kept alive in western Europe during the Middle Ages” because of the elitism and wealth associated with the collection of artifacts (Alexander 5). Crusaders stole artifacts and put them into the collections of the wealthy. Lilla’s idea of a place where any citizen can enjoy these artifacts was dashed during this time. It is important to remember that museums have not always been these bastions of culture and learning. For many years in western Europe, this kind of education and culture was reserved for the elite.

The NGA’s look reminds us of this elitism, yet it is not an elitist institution like the private collection of some European noble was. The NGA juxtaposes a classical look commonly associated with high-culture with accessibility. The McClellan article says, “the mission of Washington’s National Gallery of Art “is to serve the United States of America…by preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art” (McClellan 19). This is a noble pursuit, one that seeks to educate rather than restrict.

Placing the NGA among other museums fosters a feeling of community between them. The Smithsonian Institution was established for “Shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world” (Mission and Vision | About | Smithsonian). NGA is a critical part of this network of institutions near the U.S Capitol. Even though the NGA is not part of the Smithsonian, it feels like it is. We’ll be honest and say that for years we thought the NGA was part of the Smithsonian. Is this a problem? It depends on who you ask. If we view museums as places to spread knowledge and interest in science and art, maybe it doesn’t matter if we know what building is part of what institution. But if the history of the NGA, and the other museums on the Washington Mall, is vital to our understanding of the artifacts within, then maybe it is imperative we learn about this history.

Overall, the NGA and the Washington Mall represent the foundations of America, the desire to spread knowledge to the masses, without discrimination. The Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol bookend the Mall, one a symbol of freedom, the other, of democracy. Now whether or not America was really built on these sentiments or currently lives up to them is up for debate, but as an idealized image, an almost miniature of the country, the NGA and Washington Mall send a clear message. McClellan says, “After 9/11 the rhetoric of hope and the power of art to mend a divided world have been revived. And museums have also become refuges of authenticity and affect in a society dominated by mass reproduction, media saturation, “reality” television, scripted photo shoots, and sound bites” (McClellan 16). The museum serves as a “soothing environment removed from the complexities and pressure of contemporary society” (McClellan 10). When looking at the function of a museum, we must ask ourselves whether the museum is designed for public education and enlightenment or  for creating a space which is isolated from the outside world for people to appreciate beauty and human spirits.

The NGA is both of these things, a place for education and aesthetic tranquility. It is classically designed, evocative of a bygone era where masters painted great works, but it is also accessible to the masses, for the most part. Though we must remember that “where art and museums go, gentrification follows” (McClellan 10). We must take into account the critiques of the museum, and of the NGA, and be wary lest these public places become elitist once again.

mall-map

The NGA is part of a larger network of museums. There is a network of museums in D.C., where each museum is highly connected to each other, and represent unique themes or functions. Located between third street and fourteenth street, most of these museums belong to Smithsonian Institution.

Take Morse’s works and his achievements as an example, they are separately reserved in different museums and institutions. We first heard of Morse because of his achievement in daguerreotypes and prototype telegraph. However, he was originally a history painter whose ambitions were to “advance a strong national art for the Americans” (A New Look Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre). We can feel his passion for art and his aesthetic taste from his paintings, like The House of Representatives we saw last week, and Gallery of the Louvre. When we enjoy The House of Representatives in National Gallery of Art, we can easily notice his excellent drawing techniques, especially for the portrait of people in the painting. This is due to Morse’s earlier practice as a portraitist, when he sought financial support from the portrait business. Currently, his work of Self-Portrait is reserved in the National Portrait Gallery. Also, Morse was elected as president of the National Academy of Design in New York. One may ask, why did he abandon his art career? Because of a lack of financial success, Morse ceased painting and moved to daguerreotypes and prototype telegraph. We now can see his first prototype telegraph and other early telegraphs in both the Smithsonian American History Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Thus, only by connecting them and seeing them all in one picture can we understand the value of Morse’s achievement in a larger ground.

The National Gallery of Art completes the collection of museums, or should we say that it fills the gap of Smithsonian museums in the art field. Before the National Gallery of Art was built (in 1937), there were several Smithsonian museums, including Smithsonian Castle (built in 1849), Arts and Industries Building (built in 1881), National Museum of Natural History (built in 1911), and Freer Gallery of Art (built in 1923). Few of their collections concerned the national image of American art, which is the theme of the National Gallery of Art. The NGA provided a place to celebrate American art, something that no other museum of the era was focusing on.

The history, location, and symbolism of the National Gallery of Art tells us something about its place in society. The NGA, together with the other museums on the Washington Mall, forms a complex system that supports and sustains the timeless value of these collections. The Washington Mall represents the ideal structure of America, mixing education with accessibility, art with scientific enlightenment.

Works Cited

“Mission and Vision | About | Smithsonian.” Mission and Vision | About | Smithsonian. Smithsonian, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

Alexander, Edward P. & Mary. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition. Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007.

McClellan, Andrew.  The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

National Gallery of Art. “A New Look Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre”. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bxfe3nz80i2GZ0FlWWZORVpWZkk/view. Web. 2012.

Image 1 from Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:National_Gallery_of_Art_-_West_Building_facade.JPG

Image 2 from Dr. Irvine’s link to Washington Mall Map

 

Week 3 Response-Group 4

 

Our Impressions of the National Gallery & Samuel Morse

By: Wanyu Zhang, YinYing Chen, & Jordan Levy


Upon entering the National Gallery of Art, we were immediately awed by its monumentality. The sheer grandeur of the fountain in the rotunda suggested that the art in the gallery spaces would be no less impressive. Entering the room that houses Samuel Morse’s House of Representatives, our eyes were drawn to the large scale of the painting; the large size of the piece being an entitydifficult to gauge from online images. We believe that the physicality of the space is vital when viewing art to complete the viewer’s experience of visiting a gallery. In this case, Morse’s painting hangs on a wall all by itself, signifying its importance within the gallery. Across from Morse’s painting hangs a portrait of George and Martha Washington, two iconic figures in American history. Portraits by artists John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West hang on the adjacent wall. The fact that Morse’s lesser-known painting shares gallery space with famous artists and subjects suggests to us that Morse’s painting should be treated with equal seriousness and viewing time as the work of his more famous peers.

As we moved from room to room we felt as if we were exploring the narratives of different stories; each room seemed to follow its own theme (portraits, landscapes, women in art, etc.) The layout of the paintings, the room’s architectural design, and even the sparse gallery coloring and furnishings are carefully designed to give the artworks context beyond the subject matter. Each painting is a self-contained actor, yet the paintings sharing gallery space are a dependent network that connect to both the theme of each room and to the mission of the museum as a whole: to showcase the national identity of the country ( Latour, 5).

Although we can appreciate the National Gallery of Art in itself as well as the inspiring artworks it houses, the readings from this week detailing the history and many functions of a museum serve to deepen our appreciation of Morse’s painting and its museum home. Perhaps the most important parallel we drew between Morse’s House of Representatives and the readings was a quote from the McClellan reading. McClellan ventured to suggest that one functithe_house_of_representatives_by_samuel_f-_b-_morse_1822-1823_-_corcoran_gallery_of_art_-_dsc01099-2on of museums was to serve as “oases of beauty and calm in a hectic and rapidly changing world” (pg. 10). Coincidently, Morse designed his painting to reflect a fictional scene from a realistic gathering: a House of Representatives meeting. “At a time when the House was often raucous and factional….Morse presented instead a tranquil and relatively uneventful scene” (NGA website).

In addition, Morse’s subject matter mirrors McClellan’s mission of museums as a respite from society. The subject matter depicts a man in the center who is changing the lights in the chandelier while other members of the meeting talk with each other around the edges of the canvas, waiting for their meeting to resume. Whereas the museum is a respite from society, Morse depicts a respite from the meeting. Perhaps Morse was utilizing his medium of oil on canvas to offer viewers his attempt at an ‘oasis.’ In this instance, both McClellan and Morse suggest that art/museums offer some degree of respite from reality.  

Another way in which this week’s readings broadened our appreciation for the National Gallery of Art was the way in which the museum acted as the interface for the artwork it displays. For instance, when we initially entered the museum, the awesome architecture and grandeur of the rotunda suggested an atmosphere is sublime artistic ability. In this way, the architecture and rotunda of the National Gallery foreshadowed the artwork we were about to view. This feeling epitomizes the Gallery’s mission statement, which states the goal of the museum as presenting art “at the highest possible museum and scholarly standards.” (NGA website). In our case, the museum greeted us with the highest architectural standards of grandeur.dsc08154-2

In addition, the neoclassical style of the gallery space paralleled the seriousness of the painted subject matter which hangs within the gallery rooms. This is exemplified in the pediment arches in the dsc08150-2gallery and the heavy, gold gilded frame encasing Morse’s House of Representatives. Both of these neoclassical attributes act as interfaces, offering the viewer a framework for which to enjoy the art.

Similarly, the physical museum acts as an interface to the art itself in the way in which each exhibit was curated and displayed. For instance, the National Gallery offers each piece of art equal viewing opportunity in terms of lighting and spatial layout. Unlike Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre, the National Gallery hangs all its paintings at optimal viewing level (average eye level) and with equal overhead lighting. In his Gallery of the Louvre painting, Morse depicts several masterpieces in a lightless room cluttering the walls, likening them to nothing more than wallpaper (O’Doherty, 16). Author Brian O’Doherty refers to these high and low locations as “unprivileged areas” (16), which juxtaposes the fame of some of the paintings hanging in these areas (pieces by DaVinci, Van Dyck, Rubens, etc.). If these paintings were famous enough for Morse to study and recreate in his own painting, why didn’t he give them more space in which to be appreciated? There agallery-of-the-louvrelso appear to be several painted canvases sitting on the floor of Morse’s gallery piece, garnering even less viewer attention.

Finally, we understand Morse’s House of Representatives to be an interface in and of itself. The genre of history painting offers viewers a glimpse into the rich history of America. Morse’s painting, despite its inaccurate tranquil atmosphere, is indicative of American history similar to the way in which the American artworks in the National Gallery act as multiple interfaces to America’s past.

 

Sources:

Alexander, Edward P. & Mary. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition (Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007).

Latour, Bruno. “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 796–810.

McClellan, Andrew.  The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

Morse, Samuel Finley Breese, The House of Representatives. Oil on canvas, 1822-1823. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, U.S.A.

Morse, Samuel Finley Breese, Gallery of the Louvre. Oil on canvas, 1831-1833. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, IL, U.S.A.

O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986. Selections: Chapter 1.

Seattle Art Museum. “Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre,” 2016. Interactive site. http://www.seattleartmuseum.org/exhibitions/morse.

*All images from class trip credited Wanyu Zhang.