Morse’s Painting, the Daguerreotype and the Telegraph as Interfaces


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Morse’s tendency to look to the future is shown in his Gallery of the Louvre as he “re-mediated” the cultural knowledge to the American Republic (Irvine, p. 3). Although gallery paintings do not represent exactly what would have been on display,  Morse carefully selected works he deemed important, thus becoming a curator in his own right. His interpretation of the Salon Carré  represents  a “rich source of information about past attitudes about art”  (Roach, 2015, p.47). Serving as an interface of the Louvre to, the American public, the assembled collections in one painting show how Morse was participating in a larger trend among his network of influence (Roach, 2014, p.51).  Morse and many other artists of the time, such as, Hubert Roberts and John Scarlett, began changing the function of gallery painting as a social commentary to become a means for social mobility (Roach, 2014, p.51). Gallery of the Louvre shows Morse among other Americans in the paintings which is interesting for two reasons. First, it deepens the “meta” aspect of his message by showing how the Louvre or any museum can function as an educational institution. Second, it serves as historical evidence that could have been the impetus for his decision to help form a school of design in New York. Using art from other countries as inspiration for his own piece could also inspire, educate and provide a basis of knowledge for the anyone able to see Gallery of the Louvre to go forth and create their own great works of art.

As Gillespie states, “Most of Morse’s technological experimentation prior to his work with the telegraph was directly related to the mechanical replication of an existing subject.” (Gillespie, p. 101). Such became the common thread that tied his paintings together, namely the “Gallery of the Louvre” and the “House of Representatives”. Morse used technology as a means for exact, or “mechanical” reproduction/ imitation of nature. Through the camera obscura and the daguerreotype, Morse was able to create exact replicas that his mind was “highest class of painting- historical epics” (p. 102). The combination of art and science/ technology is nothing new in the art-world. Michelangelo and Leonardo are exemplars of embodying the concepts of science into their paintings. Morse probably had that same vision while creating his masterpieces, understanding that using technologies married the visual with the scientific, experimenting with new technologies to achieve a mechanical replication.

Aligning with Morse’s daguerreotype, his invention of the telegraph also demonstrates his endorsement of the technology. And this technology, just like his painting which transmits the western artistic masterpieces to the American public, also works as an interface that transcends time and space. Morse’s telegraph transforms messages into codes, and then sends the codes to a different, and more often, a remote place, where the codes are to be transformed back to meaningful messages. Telegraph allows for the instantaneity of information transmission, showing how technology not only intervenes but also changes the nature of human communication. If Morse’s painting could be read as a combination of “mechanical imitation” and “intellectual imitation,” his use of daguerreotype as a more direct transmission of message and meaning, and his telegraph, as Gillespie proposes, exemplifies his obsession with “mimetic reproductive technologies” (Gillespie, p. 101). Interfacing between different media through the system of coding and decoding, telegraph goes one step further in the accurate transmission of meanings. As Prof. Irving rightfully summarizes, “Morse’s whole career was about using symbolic media for encoding the transmission of meaning — and transmitting representations through time and across distances” (Irvine, p. 1).

Gillespie, Sarah Kate. “Morse and ‘Mechanical Reproduction.’” From Samuel F.B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention. Peter John Brownlee eds. New Haven, Yale UP and Terra Foundation, 2014, 101-108.

Irvine, Martin. “Art and Artefacts as Interfaces: Meta-Representation and Meta-Media from Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project.”

Roach, Catherine. “Image as Evidence? Morse and the Genre of Gallery Painting.”  From Samuel F.B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention. Peter John Brownlee eds. New Haven, Yale UP and Terra Foundation, 2014, 47-59.

Catherine,  Adriana, and Yinghan