I’m in the midst of reading The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, by Pulitizer prize winning author David G. McCullough. One of the American artists who came to study in Paris was Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph and the code that bears his name, as well as a portraitist. While in Paris, he produced a massive canvas, “The Gallery of the Louvre” (1831-1833); it’s six feet high and nine feet wide. It’s newly restored and on loan to the National Gallery in Washington until July 8, 2012. While Morse was working on it, a deadly cholera epidemic was sweeping Paris, yet he showed up every day the Louvre was open to labor away.
I was in the middle of reading about it in McCullough’s book when I saw the painting in Washington last weekend. Morse assembled 42 works of art that he felt represented the best of what the Louvre had to offer and placed them all together in the Salon Carré (Square Salon). He was allowed to put up scaffolding to get a better view of each canvas, each one a representative of an old master, including, of course, the Mona Lisa. There are also some figures, including Morse himself front and center, as well as his friend James Fennimore Cooper, the American author of adventure stories. Morse thought he’d be able to show it in a “pay per view,” situation as colored reproductions of paintings did not yet exist in the United States, but the plan flopped. Only a few people were interested in paying 25 cents each to view the painting in New York. Morse ending up settling for only a small sum when he eventually found a buyer. He would have been amazed that it sold for over $3 million in the mid 80’s.
Today’s expression, revoir sa copie (ruhvwar sah copee) means “to modify one’s copy.” Morse modified the entire layout of the Louvre and then had to modify his plans to make money from his painting of copies. I guess that resiliance helped him with the inventions that revolutionized communication.