Samuel F. B. Morse Papers Home Page
The Lesser-Known Morse: Artist, Politician, Photographer
Born in Charlestown (now part of Boston), Massachusetts, in 1791, the son of
a minister, Samuel F. B. Morse would come to typify a certain type of hard-driving,
aggressive American of the early nineteenth century. A graduate of Yale who
trained as an artist in England, he brought tenacity and determination to everything
he attempted, combining hard work with an unquenchable desire to succeed greatly
in some field. For the first half of his life, Morse believed his success would
be found in producing great art. When circumstances seemed repeatedly to prove
him wrong, he was willing to switch gears and try new ventures.
An Artist First
Long before his interest turned to telegraphy, Morse intended to be an artist.
Although his father had other plans, the young Morse showed enough artistic promise
for his father to send him abroad to study painting after he graduated from Yale
University in 1810. Morse sailed for England the following year, little realizing
when he wrote in a letter
to his parents after the long but safe transatlantic voyage, "I wish I could communicate
this information, but 3000 miles are not passed over in an instant, & we must
wait 4 long weeks before we can hear from each other," that some fifty years later
his own efforts would make it possible to do just that. He proved to be an apt
student at the Royal Academy of Arts, receiving critical acclaim for an exhibition
of his work at the Academy and winning a gold medal at another British exhibition.
Returning home in 1815, Morse hoped to translate his foreign success into
domestic achievement. In this he was disappointed. The problem was not a lack
of talent, for Morse showed great promise as a painter, but probably the fact
that he offered Americans grand paintings with historical themes when all his
paying patrons really wanted were portraits of themselves. Eventually Morse
accepted many portrait commissions, but even they did not bring the steady income
he needed to support himself and his family.
In 1829, although he had already painted such famous individuals as Eli Whitney
and the Marquis de Lafayette and had helped found the National Academy of Design,
Morse left for Europe once again to study and paint what he loved. It was during
the month-long sea voyage home in 1832 that he first began to sketch out ideas
for an electric telegraph. He took up the idea of telegraphy--sending a message
electrically over a wire--at a time of feverishly expanding electrical experimentation
excited by the work of the English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday (1791-1867).
From his own modest first steps, the scientifically-ignorant Morse would need
some twelve years of sporadic work before he had gathered enough knowledge, advice,
and experience to attempt his historic demonstration of May 24, 1844.
Art and Politics
During the years of his research, Morse did not devote himself solely to the pursuit of the telegraph. In 1834, still trying to succeed as an artist, he formulated an ambitious plan to paint grand historical scenes on the four remaining blank panels in the Rotunda of the national Capitol in Washington. When Congress rejected his plan, he moved to New York and accepted an appointment as professor of Literature of Arts and Design at the newly created University of the City of New York (now New York University). By the end of 1841, he had also twice unsuccessfully campaigned for mayor as a representative of an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic nativist party.
At the same time, Morse was also deeply involved in trying to make a go of his
newfound vocation as a daguerreotypist. After meeting the French artist and inventor
of photography, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1789-1851), in Paris in 1838, Morse
enthusiastically embraced this startling new technology and became one of the
first to practice photography in America. He worked as a daguerreotypist for some
two years but could not achieve any financial success. Nevertheless, through his
studio in New York, he trained many young men anxious to learn the new art. One
was Mathew B. Brady (c.1823-1896), who went on to become one of the best-known
American photographers of the nineteenth century.
Ultimately, posterity would not remember Morse as an artist, nor as a politician, professor, or photographer. Despite claiming to have "an artist's heart" and being called by some the father of American photography, Morse achieved his enduring success as the inventor of the practical electrical telegraph.
Leonard C. Bruno, Manuscript Division
Samuel F. B. Morse Papers Home Page