Painters in Winter: Prolog

Samuel F.B. Morse

Samuel F.B. Morse

The painter Samuel—called Finley—Morse had a long, narrow, chinny face, and sideburns.  His dark clothes were always clean and well-tailored, and unlike the great majority of his fellow citizens in old mercantile New York, he bathed with some regularity. Judging from appearances, you would’ve thought him well-to-do. But he was just the opposite. He slept on the floor of his rented studio–a man in his middle thirties!–and took just one meal a day, cold supper, at a boarding house near Trinity Church. Portrait commissions were lamentably scarce. Gentlemen of commerce and banking had no time to sit. To waste sitting. When Finley’s hat was stolen, he was forced to break his last five-dollar bill to replace it.

Often, he rebuked himself for ever having become an artist. It was a vanity. If only he’d studied law, or entered the seminary! But after graduating from Yale, he’d gone straight to the Royal Academy of Art in London, where the expatriate American painter Benjamin West encouraged him and criticized his anatomy drawings. Articulate those finger joints, young man! Mark those muscles! It was 1812, 1813, 1814.

Back in America, Finley earned his livelihood as an itinerant painter, traveling by stage coach throughout New England and cozening farmers and palmy shopkeepers to commission portraits. Few Yankees, however, would agree to pay more than 15 dollars for a likeness; to make a profit Finley had to apply his paint sparingly, and use cheap millboard instead of good canvas. In Concord, New Hampshire, he met and married a pretty girl named Lucretia Walker. Then he packed his trunk and paint box and went rattling off again by the noon stage.

Oh! how he longed for some permanency, a home, routine, like-minded friends. The freedom to paint on a heroic scale. But he couldn’t afford it. Any of it. And so he continued on—making cold, wet journeys, having Sunday dinner with perfect strangers, often at a parsonage, and indulging finicky women. Mr. Morse, it’s a lovely picture, but do you think you might add a string of pearls to my throat? And also change the shape of the guitar?

Yes, ma’am, he would say. Through clenched teeth. Yes, ma’am.

This was an era of bold, monumental endeavors—steamships, railroads, the Erie Canal—and middling to great fortunes were possible. And nearly were incumbent upon well-educated gentlemen of fortunate birth, such as Finley Morse. So he racked his brain for a scheme, something ambitious that would attract general attention and wealthy patrons, that would launch a successful career.

First, he invented a newfangled water-pump (Science and Art were not opposed in those days) but it was a dismal failure. Then he moved south and made flattering portraits of Charleston slave-owners, till the market price of cotton fell drastically and his commissions dwindled to zero. And then, in 1822, he took up residence in Washington D.C., where he spent a year and a half painting a huge picture entitled “Congress Hall” (eighty-eight legislators gathered in the House of Representatives for an evening debate).

When the picture was finished and properly framed, it weighed six-hundred-and-forty pounds. From the frieze above the Speaker’s chair to the fringe of red moreen curtains, every detail was unimpeachably correct and vividly colored. Space was related in strict Renaissance perspective. All legislators were recognizable.

To introduce “Congress Hall” in New York, Finley had leased an exhibition room at 144 Fulton Street, a short distance from the retail fish market. He fixed the admission charge at twenty-five cents and printed up thousands of descriptive brochures, to be sold at twelve-and-a-half cents apiece. Anticipating crowds, he installed oil lamps with tin reflectors so that the gallery might stay open after nightfall.

But the crowds never materialized. Not even on rainy days. Poor Finley sat on a hard bench and looked glumly at his masterpiece. If the door opened, he’d jump up and smile—till he saw that it was only the landlord, or one of his younger brothers come to commiserate. Turning pallid again with disappointment, he’d sink back down. Had he painted the figures too small? Had he? No, there was a rival picture being exhibited nearby, and its figures—of Death, Dread, Want, Disease, Desolation, and Crime—were even smaller that Finley’s congressmen, yet it was ten, twenty times more popular. What was it, then? Why didn’t anyone want to see “Congress Hall”?

He had presumed that Americans of all classes would take keen interest in a picture that was contemporary in subject and patriotic in theme. To his sorrow, he’d presumed wrong. Most Americans still fancied vigorous and instructive scenes from classical history, legend, and the Bible. Abraham and Isaac. Esau and Jacob. Sisyphus. The wreck of the Albion. Ten-acre canvases imported from Europe like orange marmalade and sold to venerable lawyers and merchants.

After the abbreviated exhibition, Finley almost despaired. He thought about changing careers. Perhaps he should become a diplomat. Or an inventor. Forget that stupid water-pump; recently he’d devised a marble-carving machine to make copies of famous classical statues. And it really worked! Sometimes. He wrote to his wife n New Haven that he was burdened with doubts.

Finley’s best friend in this period was the novelist James Cooper. Several times a week they got together in the back room of Wiley’s restaurant on the corner of Wall and New Streets to eat sausages and drink cloudy ale. Then, over segars, Finley would scowl like a troll and start to complain.

How annoying it was, he’d say, this partiality for European art! He wasn’t thinking only of its poisonous effect upon his own career. By no means. He felt it was a dangerous thing in and of itself. (Finley was an ardent republican—though he did rather admire Old World aristocrats for their good manners and excellent taste in furniture.) European art! Colonialism without soldiers, Finley called it. European art. It was about time somebody promoted American  art. The American Academy of Fine Arts, right there in New York City, was supposed to be doing just that, although—as a joint-stock company—its actual function was to maintain value on the private picture collections of its shareholders and board members. Men of the cultural elite. But how could a physician presume to judge the merit of pictures? How could a lawyer? A merchant? What were their qualifications? That’s what Finley wanted to know. Merchants knew about bills of lading and tariffs, and so forth. Artists knew about pictures. It was their business to know. What was needed, Finley believed, was a civic arts body controlled by professional artists. For their benefit.

Cooper would nod in sympathy. At that time, he was writing The Last of the Mohicans, his saga about Natty Bumpo and Chingachgook in the Adirondack Mountains. But what were people in New York and Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston reading? Ivanhoe. So he understood perfectly what his friend was talking about.


Finley began to hatch yet another scheme: to become President of the American Academy, somehow. Colonel Trumbull is growing old, he wrote to Lucretia, and there is no artist of education sufficiently prominent to take his place. By becoming known to the New York public, and exerting my talents to discover the best methods of promoting the arts, and writing about them, I may be promoted to his place, where I could have a better opportunity of doing something for the Arts in our Country.

He had no trouble cultivating friendships with men in politics and trade. He was amiable, eloquent, and could play the harpsichord. He still had very serious trouble making a living, though.

Just when his financial problems were at their most perilous (soon after his hat was stolen), the Marquis de Lafayette came to America for his last visit. The Common Council of New York proposed that a portrait of the esteemed old revolutionary be commissioned, to hang in City Hall alongside the portraits of Washington and Hamilton and Jay and Clinton. The artist’s fee was budgeted at seven hundred dollars. Finley Morse lobbied his new friends tirelessly, even underhandedly, and was rewarded with the commission. Ecstatic, he took the first coach to Washington.

But just as he was beginning to paint Lafayette, he received word that his wife had died from complications following childbirth. Her funeral was over, she was buried. It was a terrible blow (they’d hardly lived together!) but his strong, gloomy Calvinist faith sustained him and he completed the picture.

After a brief stay in New Haven, he left his three small children with his mother and father and two brothers and returned to New York. Only to discover that his work—après Lafayette—was much in demand; he was practically overwhelmed with portrait commissions. He painted the mayor’s niece, the chaplain of the city’s almshouse, even the governor.

At last he could afford a home of his own, and rented a narrow house on Canal Street. Quickly it became cluttered with paintings, and with statues produced by his marble-cutting machine. During strawberry season in 1825, he invited a number of artist-friends to visit him on Sunday afternoons. How annoying it is, he’d say, this partiality for European art. Don’t you agree, gentlemen? It’s—why, it’s colonialism without soldiers. Anyone care for more strawberries?

This was another phase in Finley’s scheme to overthrow William Trumbull as President of the American Academy and replace him.

While he was conspiring in secret, however, a group of young arts students rebelled openly against the academy. They wanted competent instruction, a serious curriculum, they wanted freer access to the academy’s study rooms. The building was supposed to open for their use every morning at six o’clock; most days it didn’t open till eight or nine, or whenever the doorkeeper felt like dragging himself from bed. Enough was enough! The academy was treating its students like beggars. Trumbull himself had sparked the revolt by using that very word. Beggars, he’d said, are not to be choosers. Indignant, the young artists drew up a list of grievances, and demanded their redress.

As soon as Finley heard about the petition, he invited several student leaders to his home to discuss what further action might be taken. By the end of the meeting, they’d scrapped the entire idea of reform and gone ahead and created a rival organization, the New York Drawing Association. Samuel Finley Morse, President.

The American Academy retaliated at once by offering to heat its study rooms and expand its library. Too late! As fall turned to winter, the Drawing Association attracted more and more of the academy’s students. Finley was often quoted in Knickerbocker journals. He became the recognized head of the New York artists’ community, its spokesman. For the first time in his life, he made enemies.

In January, 1826, the Drawing Association renamed itself the National Academy of the Arts of Design. Founded on the common sense principle—to quote from President Morse’s inaugural statement—that every profession in society knows best what measures are necessary for its own improvement. In May of that year, the new academy held its first public exhibition. A committee of artists, of peers—of rebels turned academicians—comprised the jury. Only paintings never before exhibited in New York, and by living artists, were eligible. American subject-matter was encouraged and prominently displayed. Pictures of eerie Southern caverns and the great windswept prairie, of Indians and raftsmen and fur traders, of Niagara Falls and the Hudson River.

Finley became so engaged in the hectic business of his presidency that he rarely found the time to paint. He ran low on funds again, and had to borrow from his brothers. They were disgusted with him by then and called him a financial dunce. He proposed marriage to a woman in Albany, but her family rejected him as unsuitable. The President of the National Academy—unsuitable?

Stung, and restless once more, he decided to make a grand tour of Europe. In Paris, he met his good friend James Cooper, who was now calling himself James Fenimore Cooper. Fenimore Cooper heartily congratulated Finley on the success of the National Academy and hoped it would set lasting standards of excellence. Writers, he said, should establish comparable standards for literature. No longer was he much of a democrat when it came to the arts—the rabble invariably chose the poorest work with the lowest level of imagination. Finley agreed. They’d talk for hours in the Louvre, Fenimore Cooper straddling a bench, Finley copying masterpieces. More yellow, Fenimore Cooper would say. The nose is too short. The eye is too small. Damn it, if I’d been a painter what a picture I should have painted!

On his return voyage to New York aboard the packet ship Sully, Finley heard table talk one evening bout Andre-Marie Ampere’s experiments with the electromagnet, which proved that electricity will pass instantly through any length of wire. This suggested to him yet another scheme, and for the remainder of the trip Finley stayed to himself, in his cabin, devising a code for the electromagnet, to relay and record human intelligence over great distances.

Home again, he set about raising capital for his experiments with wires and circuits and dots and dashes. He remained titular head of the National Academy and was made Professor of Art at New York University, but he painted less and less; within a few years, he no longer painted at all. And the more he devoted himself to telegraphy and patent law and monopoly capitalism, the more he considered the fine arts to be an almost superfluous endeavor. In the Age of the Engine and the Ingenious Device, what picture, no matter how large or grand, could stir the American soul, could speak so directly to it—could mirror it—as profoundly as the steel mill could, or the steam engine, the elevator, the daguerreotype?

By the end of the Civil War, Finley Morse had become rich because of his telegraph, and the telegraph was twisting American society into weird, startling shapes. News of a death, of an earthquake, now traveled instantly across the country, but so did money. Towns expanded, cities sprawled, filling up with tens of thousands of immigrants come to work in shoe factories and woolen mills, to operate blast furnaces, sewing machines, and turret lathes. Finley drank madeira with Senators and captains of industry, received gold medals from all the sovereigns of Europe. In time, he was deemed sufficiently patriarchal, and emblematic of the New Age, to be honored with a bronze statue in Central Park.

Following the unveiling, there was a banquet at Delmonico’s restaurant. Aged, dignified, white bearded, Finley rose slowly to his feet to say a few words. He spoke of his impoverishment, of his frantic efforts to establish himself, of his momentous voyage on the Sully—of how he’d left Europe a painter and arrived in New York a scientist. Then he turned and addressed a table of prominent artists. Brothers, he said, if I left your ranks, you well know it cost me many a pang. I did not leave you until I saw you well established and entering on the important duties belonging to your profession. You have an Institution which now holds a high position in the estimation of this appreciative community.

One day, in the last year of his life, Finley took a carriage to the National Academy of Design, which now occupied a miniature Doge’s Palace on the northwest corner of Twenty-third Street and Fourth Avenue. The Spring Exhibition had recently opened, and there was a portrait of Finley’s included, as a tribute. It was a shock for him to see the picture—he scarcely recalled painting it, 42 years earlier. But it pleased him.

Before leaving, he wandered through the several hushed galleries. Every inch of every wall, from floor to ceiling, was covered with large pictures, many of them vigorous and instructive scenes from world history, legend, and the Bible. He paused in front of one that featured several dark-haired goddesses, a torch, a lute, and a foursome of cupids whose penises resembled acorn caps. Then he passed on, seeing pictures of Nero with his fiddle, a shepherd with his flock, a weathered barn door with hinges so vivid you might almost have flaked off the rust with a finger. A full-length portrait of a millionaire industrialist, pink face glowing with Episcopalian surety. Finley noticed that nearly every picture had been painted by a full, voting member of the Academy; he could tell by the initials N.A. after a signature.

At last, Finley came upon an Arcadian landscape with nine grazing cows and a milk maid. He stepped back, frowned, and then shook his head. While he was standing there, he was approached by two portly academicians with rosettes in their buttonholes. Mr. Morse, it’s a great honor to meet you, sir. A great honor. He smiled, then turned and looked again at the landscape. The two artists, who’d been trained in Europe, in Dusseldorf, as had so many of their colleagues, also regarded the painting and then gasped with admiration: at its cunning brushwork, its mellow tonality, its smooth-as-cream finish. Such con brio!

Finley made a low guttural sound and tightened his lips. The artists were puzzled. Sir? they asked, do you find some fault with this? Finley tipped his head to one side, then he pointed to the picture. That hill, there, he said. Above the cattle, behind the girl. I know it. It’s in Poughkeepsie. And shouldn’t it—shouldn’t it have a telegraph pole?

The men laughed, but Finley had spoken in utter seriousness. What was wrong with painting a telegraph pole, if it was there? There’d been candles, hundreds of common candles, in the old House of Representatives, and he’d painted every single one of them into “Congress Hall.” Were candles more beautiful than telegraph poles? Than steam hammers, electric motors, fountain pens? Of course not, though Finley strongly doubted he could persuade the two academicians of that; they were still laughing.

He excused himself and left the gallery. As he was walking from the building, he stopped suddenly, struck by a thought: that the National Academy was like some minor invention of his late youth—a cleverly-designed but seriously flawed invention. Like that old water-pump, that old statue-carving machine.

Continue to read CHAPTER ONE →