James Fenimore Cooper and his Family in Samuel Finlay Morse’s Painting: The Gallery of the Louvre
Presented at the 14ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2003.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2003 Cooper Seminar (No. 14), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 19-23).
Copyright © 2005, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
Samuel Finlay Breese Morse’s canvas, The Gallery of the Louvre is a subtle painting. The work is intricately detailed and its visual symbols are extremely complicated. Recent writings about the artist have provided some insight into the meanings of these images located within this painting. Some studies have focused on the political implications of Morse’s Gallery. Those art historians look at the paintings he copies into this ” Gallery“ as being the choices of a political conservative of the Jacksonian Era, and more directly, a critique of the recently installed government in France. Other writers have focused on Morse’s inclusions of paintings indicative of his own artistic influences — copying works he saw as being the best found in the museum, and which he felt were important in terms of his own artistic style. As he is teaching several students in the gallery, the selection can not be seen as anything but personal. A few of the papers and books about this painting have even attempted to identify the figures Morse painted in the gallery, most of whom were either art students or visitors to the museum. None of these studies mentions any more detailed significance of the relationship of the individuals to Morse. As more of the figures can and will be identified in this paper, a more significant interpretation of the reason for their inclusion can be suggested. Most significant is the inclusion of James Fenimore Cooper, and Cooper’s wife and daughter, both named Susan. In contrast to Cooper’s family is both Morse himself, recently widowed, and Horatio Greenough, who was a bachelor. The painting provides insight into Cooper as traveler and patron of the arts. That it depicts his relationship to both his wife and eldest daughter Susan Fenimore Cooper is crucial to the understanding of The Gallery of the Louvre, as it is in contrast to the loneliness and isolation of all three of the other male figures in the painting.
Cooper and Morse in the 1820s
There is no record of James Fenimore Cooper having met Morse before 1820, but their lives had certain similarities prior to that time. It is understandable that the two would become friends, as they had several like interests, had a similar educational background, and had several close friends in common. They were both at Yale for a short period of time. Cooper’s attendance from 1803-1805 overlaps Morse’s 1805-1809. Given the size of the school at that time, the boys may have known of each other. They both spent time after class with two of the most popular professors at school, Benjamin Silliman and Nathan Smith. Not in the same graduating class, Cooper was expelled for a prank, the year Morse entered. ¹ That they did not correspond after Cooper left Yale, suggests no lasting friendship had developed at that time.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to develop a chronology of the significant events which occurred after Morse and Cooper met and developed a close friendship in the early 1820s. Cooper aided Morse’s career as a painter in several ways at that time. He assisted in the promotion of and attempted to intercede with the United States Government for the purchase of the latter’s painting, The House of Representatives. This effort failed due to the changes in political power in the Federal Government in 1824. He helped to insure that Morse would win the commission to paint General La Fayette’s portrait for the City of New York in 1825, and he encouraged the painter to travel to Europe. Morse met Cooper again in France in 1830, after raising enough funds for the trip in 1829. ²
After settling in New York about 1823, Cooper and Morse developed a quick friendship, often meeting with other artists, writers and men of influence at the Bread and Cheese club. The club was named for the practice of holding up either a piece of bread or cheese when members voted, rather then for any frugality at the dinner table. ³ Here Morse met both patrons for his paintings and later backers for his ‘invention’ the telegraph.
Not only was there a close personal friendship but a similarity of style between Morse’s paintings and Cooper’s writings. In Home as Found, Cooper would write, “The dark hue of the evergreens, with which all the heights near the water were shaded, was in soft contrast to the livelier green of other foliage, while the meadows and pastures were luxuriant with a verdure unsurpassed by that of England. Bays and points added to the exquisite outline of the glassy lake on this shore, while one of the former withdrew towards the northwest, in a way to leave the eye doubtful whether it was the termination of the transparent sheet or not. Towards the south, bold, varied, but cultivated hills, also bounded the view ... and yet all relieved by pieces of wood ... so as to give the entire region the character of park scenery.” ⁴
It is not clear if Cooper combined in his mind in 1838 several spots in Cooperstown when writing that passage, but one he may have been recalling is the area near Apple Hill, the setting of one of Morse’s paintings. That work, his only Cooperstown landscape, could be the exact spot Cooper was recalling in his passage. Only the Bay mentioned in that passage, most likely on the West shore of the Otsego lake, probably not far from Three Mile Point, is not exactly at Apple Hill, yet it would be visible in the distance. It is in Morse’s painting. The artist’s palette and Cooper’s adjectives suggest a closeness of mental imagery in the works of the two men. Cooper’s prose inspired several landscape painters in the 1830s. Morse may have been aware of the passage from Home as Found as he painted Apple Hill. The painting was completed just one year later then the book was published. Both works saw Cooperstown as a Classical, refined community, not a rural county seat, though in 1830 it had aspects of both. ⁵
To Paris: The Painting of The Gallery of the Louvre
Cooper had a great respect for artists. Many of his descriptions of scenery in these books are verbal landscapes. This aspect of the author’s writing is best described in Blake Nevius’s study entitled Cooper’s Landscapes: An Essay on the Picturesque Vision. Although many passages from the various books that Cooper wrote during his travels could be describing landscape paintings, one of the better “drawn ones” comes from Gleanings in Europe: Italy. The description is quoted as follows: “Here a scene presented itself which more resembled a fairy picture than one of the realities of this everyday world of ours. I think it was the most ravishing thing. ... We had black volcanic peaks of the island for the background, with the ravine-like valleys and mountain-like faces, covered with country houses and groves, in front.” Later the passage continues, “the rocks rose suddenly, and terminated in two or three lofty, fantastic, broken fragment-like crags. ... On these rocks were perched some old castles, so beautifully wild and picturesque, that they seemed placed there for no other purpose than to adorn the landscape.” ⁶ That Cooper was thinking like an artist was made clear later in the chapter when he compares the scene he is describing to the work of Claude.
Cooper was traveling with and watching the work of artists in Italy and France, notably Morse and the sculptor Horatio Greenough, which may have affected his descriptions. Cooper and his family visited museums, saw the great paintings of Europe, and watched as Morse worked on completing the most significant painting resulting from this trip, The Gallery of the Louvre. Morse himself claimed to have spent over a year both in France and America completing the work, and these efforts make the canvas so much more complex and technically detailed than most American art completed before the Civil War. ⁷
Of the painting, Morse wrote to his brother, “My anxiety to finish the picture drives me, I fear, to too great application and too little exercise. ... From nine o’clock until four daily I paint uninterruptedly at the Louvre.” ⁸ Cooper writes to William Dunlap of the painting and Morse’s assistance in helping him acquire art in France and Italy ... “He is painting an Exhibition picture that I feel certain must take. He copies admirably and this is a drawing of the Louvre with copies of some 50 of its best paintings.” ⁹ Here Cooper is a bit too enthusiastic — there are in fact only 41 works in Morse’s picture.
The work was completed, including the addition of figures, in New York during the summer of 1833. Morse then proceeded to exhibit the painting in several cities where it received mixed reviews and failed to sell enough tickets to cover a large part of the artist’s expenses. Some of the press reviews were extremely favorable. For example, the New York Mirror reported “... which most to admire in contemplating this magnificent design, the courage which could undertake such a Herculean task, or the perseverance and success with which it was completed.” The paper added, “it grows in interest at every fresh view, and we have found ourselves unconsciously lingering for hours and yet have been unable to exhaust its beauties. How far this is owed to the skill of Morse or to the beauties of those he has copied we are unable to decide, yet undoubtedly much is owed to our painter, if he has been able in so high a degree to enchant us with the great magicians of his charming art. ” ¹⁰
The Painting as Symbol
Much of writing about this painting has undoubtedly focused on Morse’s choice of paintings to include in the gallery. The particular room where this picture is located is the Salon Carré . That salon was important in the 1800s. It was the gallery at the Louvre where the directors of the museum placed the paintings they thought were the best the museum had to offer. A great change in philosophy had occurred after Morse’s first visit in 1830. When he returned in 1831 very shortly after the overthrow of Charles X in favor of Louis Philippe, a different philosophy, much more nationalistic in nature, placed only modern French paintings in the Salon Carré. In 1830, Old Masters of the Italian and Dutch school had predominated. Morse preferred the classic works. Not surprisingly, he found the pictures he wanted for his salon in other parts of the Louvre. He does hang works by Claude Lorraine, Poussin and Watteau, all prominent French artists active prior to 1800, but no French paintings completed after that date. About half of the remainder were Italian and at least a third from the Dutch school prior to 1700. Morse may have indirectly made a statement about his dislike of the current French government. Still, the works he chose clearly were ones which had influenced his style. He was teaching students in the gallery, and his own English education under Ben West at the Royal Academy is clear in all aspects of this composition. ¹¹
Morse is teaching four students in this painting. He is clearly working with one. Others work at easels and people mill about the gallery, grouped closely or segregated from one another. David Tatham suggests that all of the figures in the painting must have been present in Paris with Morse in the early 1830s. However, Morse’s letters suggest that the figures were among the things he added later in New York before exhibiting the picture. Clearly not all of the models for this work had to be present when the artist was in France. ¹²
The People in the Painting
Several authors concur that Morse painted himself into the center of the canvas instructing one of the female students. The physical resemblance between the artist and his two known self-portraits alone is adequate proof. Morse never wrote to anyone about these figures, so we are left with visual associations as the only proof of this assumption. One author, William Kloss, suggests that the student is his daughter, Susan Morse, painted from life or copied from a portrait that he completed in the mid-1820s and is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Again, the physical resemblance in general and the hairstyle in particular are striking. ¹³
Three members of the Cooper family are also included in the painting. Susan Fenimore Cooper, who had been taking art lessons from Morse, is seated at an easel copying some unknown work, behind her are her mother and father. The earliest known image of Miss Cooper, a photograph taken some time in the 1840s, does show a good resemblance. Comparisons between James Fenimore Cooper and his wife and their known portraits from both earlier and later times are also striking. That no sketches by Morse remain of any member of the author’s family suggest that the figures were added from memory, though in the case of James Fenimore Cooper a print source could have been used. ¹⁴
The inclusion of the Cooper’s in this painting is logical. Not only was Susan one of Morse’s students, she apparently had a certain aptitude for art. Greenough, for example, wrote “Miss Cooper draws well, and from the life too, and fingers the piano most brilliantly. She converses with good sense, and a delicacy all American.” ¹⁵ James Fenimore Cooper had pledged both financial support and assistance in arranging a tour of the painting once it was completed. Further, he offered to purchase the work once the tour was finished. Exactly, how committed to the offer Cooper was remains the subject of debate, as he appears to have thought Morse would have little trouble in selling the massive painting in America. However, he made a pledge of patronage and Cooper did not take such commitments lightly. ¹⁶
Morse wrote great praise of Cooper, “He has a bold, original mind, thoroughly American. He loves his country and her principals most ardently. ... ” ¹⁷ The two had formed something of a mentors’ relationship. The artist helped Cooper purchase works of art in Italy and France, mostly copies of famous paintings. Clearly the encouragement that Cooper showed Morse for the exhibition of the Gallery painting upon the artist’s return to America was significant. Morse wrote to his brother, “Cooper is delighted with it, (the painting) and I think he will own it.” ¹⁸
Perhaps the most interesting aspect in this friendship is the suggestion by some modern scholars that Morse may have courted Susan Cooper, the author’s daughter, during their stay in Paris. The basis for this speculation appears to be a single letter from the youthful and single Greenough suggesting that Morse might consider taking a wife. ¹⁹ We do not know who Greenough had in mind, but his descriptions of many of the young ladies he met in Europe does suggest that he was looking at them with a bachelor’s eye. Modern writers have looked to the younger Susan Cooper as the most logical candidate, although there is no written confirmation of any attraction between the two in Morse’s letters home or Miss Cooper’s later writings and essays about France.
Although the author will also reveal the identity of the final female art student below, the two other male figures painted in the Gallery are also recognizable. The only male copyist is likely to be Morse’s roommate, an American painter from Georgia, Richard West Habersham. Others mentioned that Morse was tutoring Habersham at the Louvre in their letters home. As we have no other evidence, such as a known portrait of Habersham, to compare, the association is speculative but logical. The male standing in the doorway is Greenough, easily recognizable from other portraits of the era. ²⁰
The woman sitting alone in this work copying a miniature has been most enigmatic. And, perhaps because all of the authors expected that the student sitting in Louvre was some one Morse would have been teaching in the early 1830s, the identity of the sitter is difficult. Morse did teach some women, not at the National Academy of Design nor at NYU, a men’s school during his tenure as professor of art there. The woman alone and distant from the other figures is Morse’s Wife, Lucretia. Although she had died in the mid-1820s, clearly she was still a significant figure to the artist and within his thoughts as he worked on the painting in Paris. ²¹ She looks most like an earlier drawing now owned by the New Hampshire Historical Society then the later oil of the family. Here, as with his daughter, the likeness is striking.
Two Views of the Gallery
Morse painted a very personal and dynamic series of social relationships into The Gallery of the Louvre. The stable family life of the Cooper family is contrasted to the artist’s own family. Cooper appears to instruct Susan Fenimore in much the same way as Morse is talking ... providing guidance to his child. Finally, the two figures in native costume near Greenough may be representative of his future family, they are close to him in location. Making them French provincials, may have been some sort of reference to an event that was clear to some of the people at the time. Today, they are hard to explain in the Gallery. Other writers have seen them as citizens of the new, more nationalistic France of 1831. Thus they are the new French viewer, entirely national in scope and outlook, moving to a gallery beyond the Salon Carré. They may be both or neither. Clearly, these two figures — a mother and child — are the most enigmatic in the picture and therefore subject to much speculation.
Yet in addition to providing a personal statement on art and art education, and an unfavorable commentary on French politics, it seems that Morse was also able to answer Greenough and perhaps other individuals who were urging him to get remarried. The painting clearly shows he thought he was not ready, confirming Cooper’s comment of the late 1830s that Morse was a “consummate celibate.” Not remarrying until the early 1840s, Morse appears to have chosen other priorities for close to 20 years after the death of his wife and felt strongly enough about their relationship to include her in one of the most important paintings of his career. ²²
Susan Cooper writes of an American Artist in Paris and American attitudes towards art in her novel, Elinor Wyllys, “One is sometimes surprised by the excessive ignorance on all matters concerning the fine arts, betrayed in this country, by men of some education; very clever, in their way, and quiet equal to making a speech or a fortune, any day ... . We have hitherto had no means of cultivating the public taste, in America, having few galleries or single works of art open to the public. ... That there is talent, aye genius, sufficient to produce noble works of art has been already proved ... . It is only a brutal and sluggish nation, who cannot be made to think as well as feel. ... Either, it is to be supposed if respectable in its way, would be a more agreeable offering to a person of education, than gold or silver in the shape most modern workmen give them. Under such circumstances, who would not prefer a picture by Cole or Wier, a statue like Greenough’s Medora, Power’s Eve, or Crawford’s Orpheus, to all the silver salvers in New York? ²³
I Wish all my Paintings were Destroyed
After Morse’s exhibition of The Gallery of the Louvre failed to recover its expenses, he sought to sell it. His hope that his friend Cooper would be able to purchase the painting would not materialize. Unfortunately, Cooper was unable to pay for it and politely declined to buy it. He did, however, suggest a potential owner, George Hyde Clarke, a local landowner near Cooperstown, on the north shore of Otsego Lake. Clarke paid $1200 for the painting, less than half of what Morse had hoped. The experience and lack of financial success affected Morse greatly. Vowing to only paint portraits, he remained an artist and art educator for just a few more years. ²⁴
By 1826, Morse would stop painting. His interest in art waned. Morse and Cooper became less friendly, separated. The men no longer shared a common city, whether New York or Paris. Still, they continued to write. In 1849, by which time Morse was no longer painting, the inventor writes to Cooper. “Alas! my dear sir, the very name of pictures produces a sadness in my heart I cannot describe. Painting has been a smiling mistress to some, but she has been a cruel jilt to me. I did not abandon her; she abandoned me. I have taken scarcely any interest in paintings for many years ... . Except for some family portraits, valuable to me from their likenesses only I wish that every picture I had painted was destroyed.” ²⁵
Looking at The Gallery of the Louvre today, it is hard to imagine the frustration that Morse felt. Instead, we can focus on both his personal artistic vision and his personal view of family in the painting. If the politics of Pre-Victorian France are less interesting today, the moment in time, a few minutes perhaps pictured here are interesting. In no other single document, can we see some of America’s most significant men of letters, in one place sharing time and common interests. The painting is not only one of Morse’s best works but a rival to any painting by Cole or Durand. The Gallery is as grand in scope, yet more personal in spirit, then any other painting of the era with the exception of Cole’s Voyages of Life.
1. Carleton Mabee, The American Leonardo: The Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1957, p. 22, and James Franklin Beard, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, Vol. I. Cambridge, Mass.: Belkamp Press, 1960.
2. David Tatham, “Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre: The Figures in the Foreground” American Art Journal. Autumn 1981. p. 40.
3. William Kloss, Samuel F. B. Morse. Library of American Art. New York: Harry Abrams, 1988. p. 99.
4. James Fenimore Cooper, Home as Found. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1838. pp. 141-42.
5. Paul Staiti and Gary Reynolds, Samuel F. B. Morse. New York: Grey Art Gallery, 1982.
6. James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings In Europe: Italy. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1838 (as quoted in Blake Nevius, Cooper’s Landscapes: An Essay on the Picturesque Vision. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. pp. 50-51).
7. Letter from Morse to his brother, published in Edward Lind Morse, ed., Samuel F. B. Morse: His Letters and Journals. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914. Vol. 1, p. 246.
9. James Franklin Beard, T he Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Volume 2, 1960. p. 239.
10. New York Mirror, November 2, 1833.
11. David Tatham, American Art Journal, pp. 41-42.
12. Ibid. p. 44.
13. William Kloss, Samuel F. B. Morse. p. 129.
15. Frances B. Greenough, Letters of Horatio B. Greenough. New York: De Capo Press, 1970. p. 88.
16. Paul Staiti, Samuel F. B. Morse. p. 85.
17. Edward Lind Morse, Letters. Vol. 1, p. 253.
19. Frances Greenough, Letters. p. 258.
20. Conversation between the Author and David Tatham in June of 2001 concerning the identities of figures in the painting.
21. The hairstyle and other details most closely resemble the portrait of Lucretia dated 1824 and owned by the New Hampshire Historical Society.
22. Mabee, American Leonardo. p. 303.
23. Susan Fenimore Cooper, (aka Amabel Penfeather). Elinor Wyllys; or, The Young Folk of Longbridge  Volume I. Cooperstown: James Fenimore Cooper Society, circa 2001. pp. 35-37.
24. Kloss, Morse. p. 135.
25. Beard, Letters. Vol. 4, p. 80.