Playing favorites in American Art

terra-morse-65lowres-1

Samuel F.B. Morse, Gallery of the Louvre, 1831-1833. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.51.

There’s a scene early on in the television show Arrested Development in which the family matriarch Lucille Bluth insists, “If you’re saying I play favorites, you’re wrong. I love all my children equally.” The show immediately cuts to an earlier moment in which Lucille, trademark cocktail in hand, loudly declares, “I don’t care for Gob.” Good parents don’t have favorite offspring, but here Lucille has betrayed the truth: she ranks her children, and her eldest son Gob comes in dead last.

Similarly, curators don’t play favorites with their collection. And yet, like Lucille, we may have a secret list of special works (none that we “don’t care for,” of course). For me, one painting comes in close to the top: Gallery of the Louvre, currently making a star appearance at PEM in the traveling exhibition Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention.

Louvre

Gallery of the Louvre installed in PEM’s exhibition Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention. Photo by Shoshana Resnikoff.

Painted between 1831 and 1833, Gallery of the Louvre is six feet tall by nine feet wide. To say it holds the room is to understate it — the contrast between its grand size and incredible detail creates a paradox of vastness and intimacy. The painting is a gallery picture, depicting a scene in the Salon Carré at the Musée du Louvre in Paris.

Best known today as the inventor of Morse code, Samuel F.B. Morse began his career as an artist. He traveled to Paris to see and paint the great collections of Europe, paying his way as a copyist and teacher.  While there he began work on Gallery of the Louvre, which he completed upon his return to New York.

In Gallery of the Louvre Morse puts his own twist on the traditional gallery picture: though the salon depicted is an actual space at the Louvre, the paintings in the arrangement are drawn from throughout the museum’s collection and did not hang together in reality.

Morse proves his ability as a copyist by meticulously recreating artwork by some of Europe’s greatest painters, including Titian, Caravaggio, and of course, da Vinci (can you spot the Mona Lisa?).

Morse also asserts his role as a curator by assembling a collection of paintings meant to instruct an American audience on the aesthetics and values that the artist believes most important. Morse’s significance as the executor of this curatorial vision is emphasized by his placement at the center of the canvas, instructing a student in the act of artmaking.

1992.51 Morse-8 center figureslowres

Close-up detail of Samuel Morse. Samuel F.B. Morse, Gallery of the Louvre, 1831-1833. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.51.

Gallery of the Louvre comes to PEM from the collection of the Terra Foundation for American Art, a Chicago-based arts organization and my former employer. A “museum without walls,” the Terra Foundation makes grants to scholars and institutions that promote American art and also organizes its own traveling exhibitions. Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention is one such show. In my previous job as Curatorial Associate at the Terra Foundation, I had the chance to help Gallery of the Louvre begin its multi-year, nine-venue tour of museums across the United States.

I first encountered Gallery of the Louvre in a Chicago warehouse where it was being fit for a new, custom-made frame. As I walked into the frame workshop and saw it for the first time, all I could think was, “damn, that’s a huge painting.” And with that incredibly banal thought, a two-year relationship between me and Morse’s masterpiece was born.

Screen Shot 2016-10-20 at 9.34.57 AM

Gallery of the Louvre at the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, CA. I’m inspecting the condition of the painting before it comes off the wall at the end of its run at the Huntington, which was the first venue of the tour.

During my tenure at the Terra I became one of three rotating couriers for Gallery of the Louvre. This job meant flying to a venue institution to meet the painting (which itself travels in a 600-pound crate on a dedicated truck), supervising its installation on the wall, and then returning three months later to oversee its removal and repacking. It also required learning the painting’s strange quirks, like the fact that it has an unexpectedly low center of gravity (making it remarkably tippy!) and that the rich red of its background seems to change tone from museum to museum.

As with most good friends, the better I got to know the painting the more I liked it. Was it unwieldy? Yes. Did it terrify me to be charged with the wellbeing of what is arguably Morse’s greatest painting? Absolutely. But Gallery of the Louvre grew on me, so much so that I now count it as one of my favorite paintings. When I left the Terra Foundation to work at PEM I knew that soon I’d be reunited with an old friend. PEM is the sixth venue on Gallery of the Louvre’s national tour, and so I waited with bated breath for September 28 when the painting and I would meet again.

Gallery of the Louvre at the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, CA. I’m inspecting the condition of the painting before it comes off the wall at the end of its run at the Huntington, which was the first venue of the tour.

Gallery of the Louvre at the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, CA. I’m inspecting the condition of the painting before it comes off the wall at the end of its run at the Huntington, which was the first venue of the tour.

A time machine to the 19th century, Gallery of the Louvre also provides insight into the creative mind of Morse, an inventor who transformed global communications in ways that continue to reverberate today.

My hope is that visitors to Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention feel transported to the Salon Carré when they see the painting, and that they begin to understand Morse’s creative drive.

Mostly, though, I’m just happy that for the next three months I can head up to the third floor of the museum and visit with an old, dear friend.

Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention is on view in Barton Gallery from October 8, 2016 to January 8, 2017. PEM’s installation of this painting is accompanied by a display of PEM’s vast photography collection, which assistant curator Gordon Wilkins will be exploring in further blog posts.

Leave a Comment