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Gallery at the Louvre

MORSE CODE
by Charlie Finch
 
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Jock Reynolds sighed. "Sometimes, Charlie, the best curations are the ones for which you barely lift a finger." Last year, the eminent historian David McCullough, Yale ’55, and Mr. Reynolds, director of the Yale Art Gallery, were discussing a chapter of McCullough’s new tome, The Greater Journey (to be published next month), about American artists and writers such as Mary Cassatt and James Fenimore Cooper, who lived in Paris during the 19th Century.

McCullough devotes a chapter to Samuel F.B. Morse’s extraordinary 1831-33 canvas Gallery of the Louvre, in which the artist and inventor copied 37 Renaissance classics from the Louvre for the edification of his American audience -- but, as he confessed to Jock Reynolds, he had no idea in 2010 where Morse’s painting actually was. Turns out Gallery at the Louvre was being cleaned at a private conservator in New London, Conn. It is owned by the Terra Foundation in Chicago, which gave up its public exhibition space several years ago, and now, instead of remaining in permanent storage, it resides on the third floor of the Yale Art Gallery, wiped of grime and time, and ready for a national tour.

I journeyed to New Haven last Sunday to look at the painting and hear David McCullough lecture about Morse’s effort to a packed auditorium. At 78, McCullough retains the dramatic rhetorical punch that has made him a legend, as narrator of Ken Burns’ The Civil War and so much else. Gallery at the Louvre is one of the strangest paintings you will ever see and McCullough effectively underscored the drama of its making by remarking that "the significance of this painting lies in what is NOT included."

Examining the painting myself, I marveled at the wide range of pastiche realized by Sam Morse, apparently because he favored certain classics over others, as McCullough pointed out. The Titians, for example, cascade down the back of the artist, who stands front and center in Gallery at the Louvre, because Titian was Morse’s painting idol. Conversely, the Mona Lisa, obscured in the bottom row, is as comical and simply drawn as a Loony Tunes cartoon.

Similarly, Raphael’s Madonna and Child with St. John is laughably flat and prosaic in Morse’s reproduction, while Murillo’s The Young Beggar is so perfectly rendered as to be indistinguishable esthetically from the original. Working on scaffolds and adjusting the scale of the pictures to fit into his jigsaw puzzle teaching model, Morse reserved his greatest painterly skills for the figures shown in the gallery itself, the South Carre of the Louvre.

As David McCullough explained, those present include the American sculptor Henry Greenough, standing in the back hallway; James Fenimore Cooper, creator of The Deerslayer (and a renowned celebrity in Paris at the time, when his friend and fellow Yale alumnus Morse was unknown) with his daughter, to the left; a Basque woman and child, meant to symbolize that the Louvre was open to all in 1833; John Habistam, an American painter, working at an easel to the extreme left; and two anonymous female students, one of whom Morse is intimately instructing from over her shoulder.

These figures have a liveliness in the actual painting absent from most of the reproductions (with Veronese’s gigantic The Wedding at Cana being almost abstracted on the left wall), underscoring the especial vigor and curiosity of the young American interlopers. But there is more: those absences David McCullough mentioned. Paris was going through a cholera epidemic in 1833, which killed 18,000, emptying the Louvre of the ubiquitous soldiers, for example, whom Morse and Cooper so disliked seeing on the boulevard.

"Morse went to bed every night thinking it would be his last," McCullough remarked sharply, "but he was determined to finish this painting." The result is a work whose freshly cleaned yellow glow has a garish, burlesque quality to it, in which some Renaissance clunkers are hopelessly rendered while others breathe "masterpiece," and whose distinctly American touches are a patriotic victory all their own.

Sam Morse painted himself and his female amanuenses with prim sensuousness, a reason alone to journey to the Yale Art Gallery to see the picture in person. The souvenir card, with its reproduction of Morse’s painting and the key to the Louvre classics within it, is a special keepsake, and the reconstruction of the new back gallery of the Yale Art Gallery and the Street Hall Archway on Chapel Street  is a wonder all its own. And my friend Jock Reynolds didn’t have to lift a finger!


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).