Morse, Metapainting, and the Museum Interface


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By Adey Zegeye, Dina El-Saharty, and Jordan Moeny

Morse’s life and work is a useful case study because of his contributions to art, education, and science. Arts and sciences are connected and need to use each other in order to progress. This is displayed not just in how Morse’s relationships with other scientists and artists influenced his inventions, but also in his work. Morse chose to highlight the importance of museums and art as a system of meaning, to bring ideas to America, and to educate others on how to understand the art within a historical context, as demonstrated most in his piece Gallery of the Louvre.  Morse’s identity, practices and ideas connect because they are all uses of perspective, representation, transmission, and systems of meaning. Daguerreotype photography, the electromagnetic telegraph, and metapainting are all examples of systems of ways to encode and transmit meaning and representation through time and across distances (Irvine, 1).

Morse was a part of a group of thinkers who reflected on their place in history in their works. Irvine writes, “The reflexive or meta turn in a representational medium is possible by converting the idea or question of representation itself into the subject matter of the representation. The gallery metapaintings use the system of representation in a painting genre to reflect back on the function of representation in collections of paintings themselves” (6, emphasis added). Using the Louvre as his foundation and reference point, Morse reflected the subject of art itself in his painting. While many early gallery paintings were used as a form of self-promotion by wealthy patrons—a means of showing off the grandeur of their collections—Morse was one of a group of artists who turned the genre into something more egalitarian. He specifically aimed to inspire others to learn, using Gallery of The Louvre to bring arts education to the US and as a foundation for what he hoped would be the future of education in the arts. Roach writes that “Morse’s contribution to the genre was not the concept of rehanging a gallery to convey a message, but rather the specific message he crafted for the American audience” (47).

Morse’s earlier painting, The House of Representatives,shows a similarly idealistic approach to its subject matter. Using the camera obscura to trace his painting, Morse accurately replicated the architecture of the space, but also presented an idealized version of the House of Representatives. Here, the dualities of “mechanical imitation” and “intellectual imitation” are largely at play. Gillespie quotes Morse as saying, “ A picture then is not merely a copy of any work of Nature, it is constructed on the principles of nature. While its parts are copies of natural objects, the whole work is an artificial arrangement of them.” (102) In other words, the painting imitates reality using “mechanical imitation” in order to be relatable and true, but also serves as a space for artists to construct their own reality (i.e. “artificial arrangement”), ultimately serving as an interface of transmitting new ideas of progress. The National Gallery overview of the painting notes that the House at the time was “often raucous and factional—debating major legislation such as the Slave Trade Act of 1820 and the Missouri Compromise of 1821.” The Corcoroan Gallery catalogue has a similar commentary: “The House of Representatives is not a picture of Congress as it was but Congress the way Morse wanted it to be. His compulsion to depict it as harmonious, courteous, and tranquil, to stress institutional civility, spatial clarity, and architectural magnitude, was an effort to vanquish the present and recuperate the past” (Cash 71). By depicting a Native American leader, alongside Supreme Court justices, legislators and the President of the United States, in a peaceful moment, his representation exudes a sense of national harmony, and epitomizes his hope for a better America. While the depiction of the House of Representatives has been mechanically imitated, its intellectual imitation stemmed from Morse’s optimistic vision for America at the time. As with Gallery of the Louvre, Morse depicted a fictional version of the world in the hope that it would inspire the public to make it a reality.

Morse recognized that a museum—and Art more broadly—is not just a collection of aesthetically pleasing images, but a place where we learn how to shape ideas and how to organize our society and culture. The museum is one place where we build our “cultural encyclopedia,” while also being a place that is difficult, perhaps impossible, to comprehend without having access to that cultural encyclopedia in the first place. As a viewer of art, anyone can make their own meanings from something, but they have to be a member of the “subculture” in order to have the background context that helps them connect the dots.

Many of the major paintings and inventions of Morse’s time overlap each other in spaces and social contexts, indicating that they were part of a larger context and cultural conversation. This is also why the museum as an interface is particularly helpful in understanding 1) how artists were influenced, 2) the historical context, 3) how layered art can be in terms of what meanings we derive from them and how they shape our society, ideas, and exchange of culture. Morse’s work—both his metapainting and his version of the House of Representatives—illuminated the importance of this context and network. This connects back to the main themes of our class work. Just like a daguerrotype or a telegraph, the museum is an interface: a transmitter and translator of information. The understanding of the translation comes from knowing who the artist is and what message they were trying to convey at the time.

Cash, Sarah, ed. Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art; Hudson Hills Press, 2011.

Gillespie, Sarah Kate. “Morse and ‘Mechanical Imitation.’” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 100–109. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014.

Irvine, Martin. “From Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project: Metamedia, and Art Interfaces.”

Roach, Catherine. “Images as Evidence? Morse and the Genre of Gallery Painting.” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 46–59. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014.