Picture This: Samuel Morse, the Artist (Part One)
This post is the first in a “Picture This” series where I look at people of the past in light of today’s world. I chose Samuel Finley Breese Morse to start us off.
Samuel F. B. Morse (1791 – 1872)
For me, Samuel Morse was an artist. Before I looked into his life, I would have called him an inventor (he was that, too).
Samuel’s father, a Calvinist preacher, wanted to preserve Puritan beliefs. Samuel kept his faith throughout his life. Later in life, he was a philanthropist. Morse donated to many churches, theological seminaries, Bible societies, mission societies, Yale College, and others. At his death, his worth may have been $10 million by today’s value.
Samuel Morse, the Artist
At Yale College, Samuel supported himself by painting, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1810. He wished to pursue painting. His parents objected but later helped him go to Europe to study art.
Back in America in 1815, he was successful as a portrait artist. (He painted Eli Whitney, Presidents John Adams and James Monroe, and others.)
Samuel Morse was Professor of Painting and Sculpture at the University of the City of New York. He also designed a machine that could carve three-dimensional sculptures in marble or stone.
Samuel Morse co-founded the National Academy of Design. He was president from 1826 to 1845 and 1861 to 1862. The Academy is an honorary association of 450 artists and architects “to promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition.”
Samuel Morse expressed his beliefs through his art. He was motivated to teach and promote art.
Samuel Morse Was America’s First Photographer
In 1839, Morse again was in Europe. In January, the French government announced that painter Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre had invented the daguerreotype, an early prototype of the camera. By February, Morse met with Daguerre to learn about this new invention. He saw the scientific and artistic potential of this new invention. He equated some of the images as equal to the details of a Rembrandt.
Samuel Morse noticed that the technique only worked with completely still objects. He may have seen the daguerreotype, Boulevard du Temple (which has the first photographic image of a person). The traffic on the street and the pedestrians do not appear during the 10-minute exposure. A silhouette of a man having his shoes shined fascinated Morse. The boy is also discernable (see lower-left corner). Because of his training, Morse recognized the potential of daguerreotypes for portraiture.
Back home again, he worked with a New York chemist and medical doctor, John William Draper, to perfect portraits on daguerreotype. Their interest was experimental. After Draper moved on, Morse briefly tried a commercial venture. One of the students of his technique was Matthew Brady, who became famous as a Civil War photographer.
What If Samuel Morse Lived Today?
What would Samuel Morse be doing today? He would:
- cultivate his God-given creativity
- be a teacher and influencer
- partner with others to pioneer new inventions and initiatives
- give generously to God’s work
But something happened in 1825 while he was working on his portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette. Seven years later, he devoted much of his efforts to improving the telegraph and developing Morse Code. He focused more than twenty years on these major turning points in global communication. These inventions are what we remember him for.
“Stay tuned” for part two next week to find out what happened to turn this artist into an inventor.
Have you seen God work in your life to change your direction dramatically?
- The Picture This series will feature people of the past in light of today’s world.
- My sources for Samuel Morse’s life story:
- Samuel F.B. Morse: American artist and inventor (Britannica)
- Who Made America? Samuel Morse (PBS)
- Morse Code & the Telegraph (The History Channel)
- Samuel Morse and the Quest for the Daguerreotype Portrait (The MIT Press Reader)
- The Inventor of the Telegraph Was Also America’s First Photographer (Smithsonian)
- Samuel Morse (Wikipedia) documents some of the negatives of Morse’s life. I give him the benefit of the doubt, knowing the times he lived in, and his upbringing, were different from today.
- Samuel Morse bought the Locust Grove Estate in 1847. The house was designed for his family’s summer home. It’s a National Historic Landmark and offers a museum of Samuel Morse’s two lives as an artist and inventor. Visit the estate in Poughkeepsie, New York.
The painting of the Niagara Falls by Morse is in the public domain in the United States. The original is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The portrait of Lafayette is also in the public domain in the United States. It is in New York City’s City Hall collection. The daguerreotype, Boulevard du Temple, is also in the public domain in the United States.