April 27, 1791: Samuel F.B. Morse, ‘American Leonardo,’ Born

1791: Samuel Finley Breese Morse, inventor of the practical electromagnetic telegraph, is born in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He’ll also make waves in the art world and in politics.

Morse’s father, Jedidiah, was the co-inventor of cerographic sterotypy (a wax-based printing process), and he improved the bathometer (for measuring water depth). He also wrote and edited geography textbooks and with his brother founded the New York Observer.

S.F.B. Morse went to Yale College, were he studied under mathematician Jeremiah Day and chemist Benjamin Silliman. Neither noticed any particular spark in their young student.

He did, however, show some artistic ability and made money painting miniature portraits on ivory for $5 a head ($90 in today’s money), or one buck for a simple profile. When he graduated in 1810, he set off for a career in painting. After an unsuccessful stint as a clerk in a bookstore, Morse was at last sent to study under American Romantic landscape painter Washington Allston, who took him to England.

In England, Morse met American expatriate Benjamin West, who was president of the Royal Academy and very much the man of the hour in art. West was taken with Morse’s work, but Allston thought less of it. His criticism, however, helped improve the young artist’s technique. Morse remained in England throughout the War of 1812 and returned to the United States in 1815.

He began making a name for himself at home. The Marquis de Lafayette and President James Monroe both sat for portraits.

Morse also took an early fling at the family business of inventing. He patented a machine for cutting marble in 1823.

He helped found the National Academy of Design in 1826 and served as its first president all the way through 1845. He also enjoyed considerable popularity as a lecturer on art.

Morse returned to Europe in 1829 to study the old masters, and he stayed in France and Italy until 1832. By the time he returned, he was regarded as one of America’s foremost painters.

Congress was deciding who should paint four of the great panels on the walls of the rotunda of the Capitol Building. Four of the eight panels had already been completed by John Trumbull, president of the American Academy of Fine Arts, from which Morse’s group had seceded.

Many people — Morse included — expected Morse to be among those chosen to paint the four remaining panels. Former President John Quincy Adams, who was then a representative from Massachusetts, submitted a resolution to allow foreign artists to do some of the work, suggesting that American painters had not yet achieved the caliber of greatness required for such monumental work.

Novelist James Fenimore Cooper, a friend of Morse, wrote an anonymous letter to the New York Post defending the native talent. In the midst of a running feud between Morse and Trumbull, the letter’s effect was the reverse of what Cooper intended.

The committee in charge of selecting the artists thought that Morse had written the letter, and rejected him as a possible candidate. (The panels were eventually painted by John Vanderlyn, William Henry Powell, John Gadsby Chapman and Robert Walter Weir, with all of whom you are no doubt familiar.)

To console him, Morse’s friends got together and commissioned a work from him. He made a few sketches but decided his career as an artist was over. He returned the advances on the commission and never picked up a brush again.

The downturn in his artistic fortunes would be a boon to communications.

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