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Sunday, March 25, 2012

'The Louvre' at the National Gallery of Art

Samuel F. B. Morse, Gallery of the Louvre, 1831–1833
oil on canvas, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection

A small portion of the collection from the Louvre may be found in one large painting at the National Gallery's West Building closest to the Fourth Avenue entrance, steps from the tranquil East Garden Court, in a hall gallery all by itself.  It is entitled Gallery of the Louvre.

The painter was Samuel Morse (1791-1872), yes, that Samuel Morse, the same person who developed the Morse Code for telegraphs and a co-inventor of the telegraph itself, who began his adult life as a painter. 
Have your seen this marker on the side of a building in downtown Washington?  Where is it? /Patricia Leslie

Like so many artists of varying genres, Morse had to fund his passion of composing historical painting by doing what comes financially rewarding, in his case, making portraits.  While working on one of the Marquis de Lafayette in Washington in 1825, Morse received the chilling news that his wife was ill in New Haven.  By the time he reached home, Lucretia Pickering Walker was dead. 

A central figure in the Gallery of the Louvre which Morse painted a few years after Lucretia's death may indeed be she.

The large painting is filled with Morse's recreation of 38 masterpieces found at the Louvre which he "re-hung" in one of the Louvre's grandest galleries, the Salon Carre.  Morse made his Louvre piece into a workshop where students studied and copied paintings, much like they do today at the National Gallery of Art

His painting of the paintings is not drawn to scale, said tour leader Peter John Brownlee, the associate curator for the Terra Foundation for American Art, chief sponsor of the exhibition and the owner of the work. 

A viewer will immediately wonder about the yellow veil which covers the painting, caused, said Mr. Brownlee, by resinous materials Morse used to produce richer colors, and by the layers of varnish the artist applied for quicker drying.

Morse did not identify any of the people in the painting, however, the experts have.  The couple in the center is likely the artist resting his arm on his daughter's shoulder, and to the right of them, a solitary woman, perhaps the deceased Mrs. Morse or a student. In the left corner are, most likely, Morse's friend, James Fenimore Cooper and Cooper's wife and daughter, and in the left foreground, another artist friend, Richard Habersham.

Standing in the center background at the entrance to the Grand Hall with a little girl and talking to another artist friend, Horatio Greenough, is an unidentified woman who bears resemblance to Marge Simpson with upswept hair, fashioned pyramid-style. (Homer would be proud Marge made it to the walls of the National Gallery of Art.)

Some of the works Morse copied were drawn by Claude Lorrain, Raphael, Titian, Antoine Watteau, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Simone Cantarini.  It is a totally stunning work which I have been to personally visit only three times, and I always make sure to chart Gallery on my daily (well, almost) walks through the National Gallery to see what new details I can uncover.  There are many!  And it is fun.

Mr. Brownlee describes Gallery of the Louvre in a handsome eight-paged color brochure provided by Terra Foundation and available at no charge in the gallery.
Samuel Morse's Gallery of the Louvre at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C./Patricia Leslie

What:  Samuel Morse's Gallery of the Louvre

When:  Now through July 8, 2012, every day from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m., Sunday

Where:  West Building, National Gallery of Art, Fourth through Ninth streets, NW, on the Mall

Admission:  No charge

Metro stations:  Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Navy Memorial-Archives, L'Enfant Plaza, and/or ride the Circulator

For more information: 202-737-4215

(Update) A "must have" for Morse fans:  Samuel F. B. Morse's Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, Terra Foundation for American Art, distributed by Yale University Press, 2014

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