How we understand Morse

Group Members: Huaiyu Zhang, Zhe Lu, Mary Margaret Ewens

How we understand Morse- from his lifetime of religion and science:

Samuel Morse’s idea of painting reflects his idea of politics and religions, which can distinctly be shown in the theme, figures, and structures he choses, which are features that are directly shown on the paintings that people can interpret from the images. From an early age, Samuel Morse’s upbringing was stalwart in his preacher fathers values in both Calvinism and Federalism. After studying religion and science at Yale, Morse studied painting, where his childhood upbringing shone through into his artistic works. After traveling abroad to England to study art further, Morse became increasingly influenced by anti-Federalist ideals, and began producing works that emulated a more politically minded rather than religiously minded tone and tended more towards a belief  in democratic nationalism.

One can compare these various degrees of change in beliefs to the artwork that was created in each period of Morse’s growing thought. In an early work, Landing of the Pilgrims, critics have often noted the use of plain clothing, a nod to Morse’s Puritan background, whereas compared to what is noted to be one of his most well-known works, Dying Hercules, which shows an anti-sympathetic tone towards the Federalist party his father grew up idolizing. Comparing the two, you can see a clear divide both in time and thought, as Morse’s mind was being opened up to a completely different world of thought than the bubble he grew up knowing. Another Morse painting,  The House of Representatives, which will be discussed below, shows how he expressed his willingness to depict a scene of America features.

Within The House of Representatives and the Gallery of the Louvre, Morse used camera obscura to assist him. Gillespie-Morse-and-Mechanical-Reproduction indicates that Morse’s “utilization of technology did not represent his pursuit of technology, but his emphasis on the development of new innovations and use the painting methods to participate and express it.” The idea of using technology for painting also helps him to generate the idea of portrait photograph by combing the new technology with intelligent painting skills. The combination of new technology with human intelligence generates some special features for the painting.”

What we found about after last week’s visit is the technology for painting The House of Representatives makes this painting did not look like normal paintings drawing a situation or a scene. First, the figures in this painting were recorded by the technology instead of painters’ memory or imagination. So, the gestures of the people in this painting were a little bit strange because in a painters’ view, almost all the people showing their faces in the same direction. There is a certain amount of detail paid to the subjects faces, and you can see many of them looking in the same direction, because as stated before, the painting was originally cast from a photograph that Morse used with his camera obscura.The colors and details of both the outfits and architecture within the space moreover adds to the realism that can be noted within Morse’s later works. There is much more pomp being paid to the overall subject, a complete opposite idea to Morse’s former Puritan way of painting in his earlier years.

Second, this painting tends to record a historical moment in an interesting and ideal way. Instead of creating a serious or strict environment, Morse depicted the painting in an ideal way that Morse wanted it to be, instead of reality.

As Irvine’s article said, the interface function of art could be seen as another kind of “transmitting ideas and communicating through distance”, shares similar ability with telegraph. When Morse considered the material appears in his painting, he is encoding. And when the audience at his time or nowadays view the painting, we are decoding the meaning. The Meta Painting was an even more similar work. When using telegraph, people need to separate the word into letters, and encode. The receiver then decodes every letter, and combine them together to make it meaningful. Similarly, after preparing every interior painting, Morse worked on Gallery of the Louvre. And to fully understand what Morse wanted to convey, we need to recognize the artworks inside it.


How we understand Morse- from the perspective of media interface:

For us, the failure of Morse’s artist career was regretful yet understandable. When viewing The House of Representatives, we approve the painting technique in it. But the work was hardly seen as outstanding, and failed to stir up emotion. Comparing it to Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire, the latter is a more impressive historical epic painting. Course of Empire is more narrative, containing a whole progress of the empire’s vicissitude. The intensive contradiction in this series gives its viewer a huge shock.

From my perspective, Morse gave up creating this viewing experience for his audience, because he took the painting as something more than a simple picture, but as an interface. He hoped his work could be an interface between the audience and the distant place they couldn’t achieve. Also, the painting should make the audience inspired by the tantalizing, idealistic ideology Morse believed in. He erased all the less polite politicians and the intensive arguments happening in the House of Representatives, and gave up presenting the real and impactive history moments. Instead, he chose to show a grand building, with peaceful, elegant and rational gentlemen working here. What Morse is able to capture is that through his interface, he allows the viewer to peer into the inner workings of democracy, and by using the camera to originally capture the expressions and movements of the people, it creates a realistic view of democracy. There is no friviality added to it to make it seem more exciting or opulent, but rather he chooses to show the viewer exactly how he preserved a specific moment in time. This brings together both his realistic style for painting with his interest and knack for bringing the scientific realm into his works, to create a work that was yes, short of many people’s expectations, but one that continues to show the bridge of reality between technology and art.

For now, the painting also serves as an interface for us and that particular history. The painting itself is not strong enough, for it didn’t record the truth honestly. But by analyzing what was accept and what was rejected in the painting, we could feel the social contradiction and context at that time concretely.

The Gallery of the Louvre also carries the function of interface. Although Morse was still working as a painter at that time, we can see how the work combining many aspects of his later roles. He believes the painting could be an interface between American public and the brilliant European art legacy, by which he actually realized the educational function of public museum nowadays. This, also forecasts the foundation of his school of design. In this way, Morse’s choice of interior paintings is not the same as the exhibition. He also accept and reject parts the reality intentionally, to make the “code” he made contains the meaning he admire. Although he used camera obscura to help his work,by embracing the technology, Morse is not pursuing the resemblance, but took Art as a way to express his abstract idea and value.



  1. Wikipedia contributors. (2019, January 22). Samuel Morse. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 08:42, February 7, 2019, from
  2. Cash, Sarah, ed. Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art; Hudson Hills Press, 2011. Excerpts.
  3. Sarah Kate Gillespie, “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.
  4. Martin Irvine, “From Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project: Metamedia, and Art Interfaces.”