Saturday, April 8, 2017

Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention 2

November 2017–March 2018
Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, Stanford, California

A long-hidden treasure of American art, “Gallery of the Louvre,” will go on view at Reynolda House Museum of American Art in February. The masterpiece of Samuel F. B. Morse, yes that Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph and namesake Morse code, will form the core of a new exhibition:  “Samuel F. B. Morse’s ‘Gallery of the Louvre’ and the Art of Invention,” Feb.17 - June 4, 2017. The show will include early telegraph machines from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, 19th-century paintings and prints from Reynolda’s own nationally recognized collection and old master prints from Wake Forest University. Reynolda House is the only venue for this exhibition in the southeastern United States.

Reynolda House Museum of American Art recently pulled back the curtain on two American masterpieces:  a monumental painting titled Gallery of the Louvre and the telegraph – both the work of Samuel F. B. Morse. The new exhibition offers a rare look at a historical painting as well as a unique presentation of the diverse talents that made Morse one of America’s first Renaissance men. Samuel F. B Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention is on view at Reynolda House through June 4, 2017.

An Artist With Big Ideas
Morse was an accomplished artist in the early 1800s, noted for his portraiture and large-scale paintings, often in combination. His life-size Marquis de Lafayette, 1825, is installed at New York City Hall. Dying Hercules, 1812, 8 feet x 6 feet, hangs at Yale University Gallery of Art. The even grander 11 feet x 7.5 feet House of Representatives, 1822, is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
In 1831, Morse conceived of another large-scale painting, this one to introduce European masterpieces to American audiences decades before the founding of art museums here. His plan was to send the painting on tour to educate the public.
The artist spent months at the Louvre in Paris, painstakingly copying in miniature 38 Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and work by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens, Tintoretto, Titian, and others. He then ‘installed’ the works in an imagined gallery arrangement on his 6 feet x 9 feet canvas, titling his work, Gallery of the Louvre. Morse paints himself in the center, tutoring a young student as she works on her own copy of one of the masterpieces before her. Morse’s friend, author James Fenimore Cooper, can be glimpsed with his wife and daughter in the left corner.
Gallery of the Louvre was one of Morse’s last paintings. Disheartened when the tour he envisioned did not materialize, Morse turned his attention to a new means of communication:  the telegraph. He used wooden canvas stretcher bars from his studio to construct his earliest versions, a selection of which are on loan for the exhibition from Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Worth the Wait
Over the years, Gallery of the Louvre has seldom been exhibited. It was last purchased in 1982, setting a then record for an American work of art. The Terra Foundation, which owns the painting, commenced a national tour in 2015, the much-delayed culmination of the creator’s intent. The installation at Reynolda House Museum is the only venue that has included both of Morse’s greatest creations: Gallery of the Louvre and the telegraph.
The Reynolda House Museum of American Art exhibition of Gallery of the Louvre also includes 19th-century paintings and prints from its renowned collection of American art along with old master prints on loan from Wake Forest University. 

The massive six-by-nine foot canvas pictures 38 Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces, which Morse considered to be the finest works inside the Louvre. He painstakingly copied in miniature Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and work by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens, Tintoretto, Titian, and other celebrated artists, then imaginatively ‘installed’ the works in the Louvre’s majestic Salon Carré. His arrangement of the old master miniatures within his own painting was done to demonstrate differences in styles and techniques among the artists.

Morse centers himself in the painting’s foreground as an instructor and, figuratively, as a link between European art of the past and America’s cultural future. He is seen tutoring a young art student as she works on her own copy of one of the masterpieces before her. Morse’s good friend, author James Fenimore Cooper, can be glimpsed with his wife and daughter in the left corner.

“Gallery of the Louvre” was a purely academic undertaking for Morse, befitting his role as  painting professor and founder of the National Academy in New York. His plan was  to send the painting on a national tour after its completion in 1833. When the tour did not materialize, Morse relinquished his creativity to perfecting his telegraph. The painting set a record for an American work of art at the time of its last purchase in 1982: $3.5 million. In 2015, a national tour commenced, the much-delayed culmination of Morse’s original intent.

The show’s final element, early telegraphs, affirms that Morse was an astute bridge between old and new, cleverly moving from painter to inventor. As the Reynolda House Museum of American Art exhibition will show, he used wooden canvas stretcher bars from his studio to construct his earliest versions of the telegraph.

Another highlight of the exhibition will be important works from the collection of Reynolda House Museum of American Art. More than 20 paintings and prints by the 19th century’s leading artists, including William Merritt Chase, Thomas Cole, John Singleton Copley, Edward Hicks, Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart, serve to explore themes of America’s cultural identity.

 Old master prints, among them work by Rembrandt and van Dyck, will be on loan to the exhibition from Wake Forest University’s collection. Prints like these were used in the 17th century in the same way that Morse intended his canvas to instruct and show art two centuries later.


Worthington Whittredge (American, 1820–1910)
The Old Hunting Grounds, 1864
Oil on canvas
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1976.2.10

Like Thomas Cole, Worthington Whittredge used nature to evoke the divine.  The Old Hunting Grounds is a complex painting with multiple layers of meaning. The artist offers the viewer a glimpse of a woodland interior where dappled sunlight illuminates pale birch trees. A disintegrating birch bark canoe symbolizes the departure and demise of Native Americans, who were displaced by white settlers. The arched shape of the framing branches on the sides and at the top suggests the soaring interior of a Gothic cathedral. For Whittredge, the connection between forest and cathedral lay in the poetry of his friend William Cullen Bryant. In “A Forest Hymn,” Bryant wrote that “the groves were God’s first temples.” Like Samuel Morse, Whittredge served a term as president of the National Academy of Design, where he shared his views about the connection between nature and religion with his students.

James Smillie (American, 1807–1885)
after Thomas Cole (English-born American, 1801–1848)
Voyage of Life: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age, 1853–1856
Engravings on paper
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1983.2.39.a-d

National Academy of Design co-founder Thomas Cole emigrated from England to America at the age of seventeen and found his artistic subject in the untrammeled wilderness of his adopted country, particularly the Hudson River Valley of New York. The pristine lakes and old-growth forests of the northeast Appalachians were seen as the ideal classroom for nature painters, who considered it their duty to capture God’s bountiful creation without distortion. They often emphasized elements that were symbolic of the brevity of life—sunsets, autumnal colors, and trees ravaged by storms or the axe. 

In the allegorical series Voyage of Life, the passage of time and the inevitability of decline are symbolically manifested as a river of life. Upon initially placid waters, the child is borne on a small boat with a figurehead holding aloft an hourglass; the boat is filled with flowers and guided by an angelic steersman. In the second stage, the youth has abandoned his guardian angel and steers his own course toward castles in the sky; in the third, the man approaches rapids beneath a storm-threatening sky haunted by disheartening spirits; in the final image, the world and its time have receded from the voyager, who gratefully approaches boundless eternity, received by welcoming angels.

Edward Hicks (American, 1780–1849)
Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch, 1826–1830
Oil on canvas
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1969.2.3

Edward Hicks, sign painter and Quaker minister, found a profound purpose for his art when the Society of Friends was rocked by internal divisions in the 1820s. Hicks based his Peaceable Kingdom painting on the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the hereafter, in which lion, lamb, and other naturally hostile creatures peacefully co-exist, led by a child holding a sprig of grapes—symbolic  of redemption through the blood of Christ. Hicks imaginatively placed the signing of William Penn’s treaty with the Delaware Indians beneath the Natural Bridge of Virginia, relating an act of human reconciliation to a natural marvel that connects two sides of a river gorge.


William Michael Harnett (Irish-born American, 1848–1892)
Job Lot Cheap, 1878
Oil on canvas
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Original Purchase Fund from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, ARCA, and Anne Cannon Forsyth, 1966.2.10

A crate of used books—a “job lot”—is advertised for cheap sale. Stacked in a jumble, the books represent English translations of world literature, including several whose titles are legible—Arabian Nights, Homer’s Odyssey, and Dumas’s Forty-Five Guardsmen. The Cyclopaedia Americana, representing human knowledge to date, is visible in the center.

In an interview, William Michael Harnett said of his highly realistic still lifes, “I endeavor to make the composition tell a story.” His works of the 1870s often combined traditional vanitas elements suggesting the brevity of life—human skulls, peeled fruit, guttering candles, extinguished pipes—with a modern symbol of impermanence, the daily newspaper. His frequent use of books is more ambivalent. Books may quickly pass from “just published” to “job lot cheap;” on the other hand, like works of art, they may be passed down for generations, their stories told and retold.

William Rimmer (English-born American, 1816–1879)
Lion in the Arena, circa 1873–1876
Oil on pressed wood pulp board
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1970.2.2

William Rimmer found his subjects in ancient history, mythology, and biblical narratives and returned repeatedly to the contest of gladiator and lion, recalling Hercules’s first labor, killing the Nemean lion. The story enabled Rimmer to demonstrate his mastery of anatomy, which he practiced both as a physician and professor of art, which he taught at Harvard University and the National Academy of Design soon after Samuel Morse stepped down as president.

Lion in the Arena thrusts the viewer into the midst of a tense stand-off, in which both man and beast crouch, coiled with fear and bloody determination. In the middle ground, further scenes of mortal combat play out—a rearing lion bites into a man’s shoulder, another lion lies bloodied, and sprinting gladiators kick up dust, obscuring the cheering crowds of the Coliseum.

William Merritt Chase (American,1849–1916)
In the Studio, circa 1884
Oil on canvas
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Original Purchase Fund from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, ARCA, and Anne Cannon Forsyth, 1967.2.4

A fair-haired sitter in a French neoclassical gown looks up from her study of a print, surrounded by a veritable library of fine and decorative arts gathered during William Merritt Chase’s many travels. The American Impressionist’s famously lavish studio in New York’s Tenth Street Studio Building recalls a description of Gilbert Osmond’s apartment in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, published in 1881:

It was moreover a seat of ease, indeed of luxury, telling of arrangements subtly studied and refinements frankly proclaimed, and containing a variety of those faded hangings of damask and tapestry, those chests and cabinets of carved and time-polished oak, those angular specimens of pictorial art in frames as pedantically primitive, those perverse-looking relics of mediæval brass and pottery, of which Italy has long been the not quite exhausted storehouse.

Chase achieved fame as an artist, a teacher, and a cosmopolitan cultural figure who once exclaimed “My God, I’d rather go to Europe than to Heaven!”

Robert Ingersoll Aitken (American, 1878–1949)
A Thing of Beauty, circa 1910
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Richard Earl Johnson, 2008.4.1

Though born a generation after the decline of Federal Era classicism, Robert Aitken remained committed to an academic conservatism throughout a career that took him from San Francisco to Paris and New York. This graceful bronze nude, whose title is borrowed from a line of Keats’s poetry (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”), is a study in classical idealism and contrapuntal poise; legs, arms, and fingers intertwine, yet the figure appears perfectly balanced.

In 1929, Aitken was appointed vice-president of the National Academy of Design, founded over a century earlier by Samuel Morse. When a dedicated Supreme Court building was constructed in the 1930s, Aitken designed the sculptural group on the west pediment, above the main public entrance. Years earlier, Morse’s first inter-city telegram was sent from the Supreme Court chamber when it was still located within the Capitol; Morse would spend many years defending his intellectual property before the Court.


Jeremiah Thëus (Swiss-born American, 1716–1774)
Mrs. Thomas Lynch, 1755
Oil on canvas
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1972.2.1

Jeremiah Thëus’ likeness of Elizabeth Allston Lynch is the oldest piece in Reynolda’s collection and is an excellent example of colonial portraiture. She was born into the prominent Allston family in South Carolina and married into the Lynch family, also notable citizens. Her husband, Thomas Lynch, was a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1776, and her son, Thomas Lynch, Jr., signed the Declaration of Independence.

As a young man, Samuel Morse believed that the Revolution had ushered in a new age of peace and prosperity. The successes after the Revolution—increased wealth and leisure, more widespread knowledge, and new inventions—were evidence of America’s exceptionalism and proof that the democratic experiment would thrive. In later years, Morse became antagonistic toward the nation’s rising pluralism.

John Singleton Copley (American, 1738–1815)
John Spooner, 1763
Oil on canvas
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Bequest of Nancy Susan Reynolds, 1968.2.1

In contrast to the patriotic Lynch family, the subject of this portrait, John Spooner, remained loyal to the English crown in the years leading up to the Revolution. He shared those sentiments with his portraitist, John Singleton Copley. Copley made a living taking commissions for portraits but had strong ambitions to paint great scenes of history. Eventually, he left the colonies for England for both artistic and political reasons; Spooner had fled to England six years earlier.

More than a generation younger than Copley, Samuel Morse also traveled to England, but for artistic training only and with no intent to make it his permanent home. When Morse arrived in London in 1811, he took rooms near Copley. By then, the elder artist had achieved some success, having been elected to the Royal Academy in 1779. The story of the transatlantic pilgrimage of American artists to London demonstrates the close cultural ties between England and America during the colonial and federal periods, even when political ties were threatened or severed. Morse would soon find those ties imperiled again by the War of 1812.

Christian Inger (German-born American, circa 1814–circa 1895)
after Emanuel Leutze (German-born American,1816–1868)
Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1866
Hand-colored lithograph
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1983.2.40

On a densely snowy Christmas night, outnumbered patriot forces embarked upon a surprise attack against Hessian troops (German soldiers employed by the British) in Trenton, New Jersey. The German-born American artist Emanuel Leutze immortalized the battle with some invention. Winding through an icy river lit by a rising winter sun, General Washington’s tiny craft in this image is packed with famous patriots: future president James Monroe, who was not present for the battle, holds a flag that Betsy Ross had yet to design; second-in-command Nathanael Greene leans out of the vessel; and General Edward Hand holds tight to his tricorn hat. At Washington’s knee sit a Scottish immigrant, identifiable by his bonnet, and a patriot of African descent named Prince Whipple. Other soldiers embody types that soon would become Americans: farmers, frontiersmen, and, in the stern, a Native American.

Leutze painted several monumental versions of the crossing. One was destroyed in Germany by Allied bombers in World War II;

another painted in 1851 today fills a twelve-by-twenty-one foot wall in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This engraving was made in 1866 and further established the fame of this image of a cold and beleaguered revolutionary crew on a crossing to unexpected victory.

Edward Savage (American, 1761–1817)
after Robert Edge Pine (English,1742–1788)
Congress Voting Independence, restrike 1906, from 1801–1817 plate
Stipple and line engraving from unfinished plate
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1983.2.35

In Robert Edge Pine’s interpretation of Congress Voting Independence, Thomas Jefferson stands at the literal and symbolic epicenter of a political earthquake—the delivery of the Declaration of Independence in the State House (Independence Hall, Philadelphia) in 1776. A seated John Hancock receives the document while a pensive Benjamin Franklin, in the foreground, rests with chin in hand. Franklin was a major figure in the American Enlightenment, a movement whose followers found scientific advances and political liberty to be mutually dependent. Franklin’s discoveries in the field of electricity were foundational for many practical inventions of the next century, including Morse’s telegraph. Franklin believed that “Men who invent new Trades, Arts or Manufactures…may be properly called Fathers of their Nation.”

Robert Edge Pine was an Englishman sympathetic to the American revolutionaries, and made portraits of Washington and others in a room within the State House, leading historians to consider 

this image the most accurate visual account of the vote for independence. The American painter and printmaker Edward Savage created an engraving of the painting, and prints were made from the engraving as late as 1906.

John Sartain (English-born American,1808–1897)
after George Caleb Bingham (American, 1811–1879)
The County Election, 1854
Hand-colored engraving with glazes
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1983.2.37

Beneath a banner proclaiming “The Will of the People the Supreme Law,” the messy drama of democracy rollicks a small American town. Candidates tip their top hats, while men argue the merits of their platforms; a drunk voter is carried to cast his vote, having been served by an African American who is ineligible to vote; children play mumble-the-peg, a game in which, like politics, advantage is quickly gained or lost; thoughtful citizens read national newspapers near a downcast man who was literally bruised by political controversy.

Artist and state legislator George Caleb Bingham had two favorite subjects: frontier life on the Missouri River and the democratic process. 

Painted in 1851–1852 and engraved in 1854, at the height of national contention over slavery, The County Election contains a hint about the artist’s sympathies: a sign for the “Union Hotel” stands like a beacon of permanence for a nation at a time of explosive division. Bingham tipped his own hat: “I design [the work] to be as national as possible—applicable alike to every Section of the Union.”


Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755–1828)
Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis (Sally Foster), 1809
Oil on mahogany panel
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Original Purchase Fund from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, ARCA, and Anne Cannon Forsyth, 1967.2.3

Sally Foster Otis, married to the president of the Massachusetts state senate, was already a mother of ten when, dressed in a highly-fashionable neo-Grecian gown, she sat for Gilbert Stuart in Boston. In her large home on Beacon Hill, she commanded a social circle that supported her husband’s ambitions as congressman, senator, mayor, and, eventually, leader of the Federalist Party. One encounter was reported by former president John Adams: “I never before knew Mrs. Otis. She has good Understanding. I have seldom if ever passed a more sociable day.”

Gilbert Stuart once advised the young Samuel Morse to “Be rather pointed than fuzzy…you cannot be too particular in what you do to see what sort of an animal you are putting down.” Morse revered Stuart, and considered himself fortunate to earn forty dollars less per painting than the elder artist. It is difficult to overstate Stuart’s accomplishments; he portrayed the nation’s first five presidents and nearly every major figure in the political and social life of the early republic. Nonetheless his life was highly peripatetic, fleeing creditors, quarrels, and bankruptcies from one metropolis to another.

Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741–1827)
Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Robinson, 1795
Oil on canvas
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1973.2.2

The Robinsons were newly married and expecting their first child when the bride’s famous father, Charles Willson Peale, painted this double portrait. The happy occasion was marred by what Peale called Alexander’s “bad grace” during the sitting. Robinson, a wealthy immigrant from Ireland, was described as haughty, proud, and disdainful of the painting profession; he reportedly dismissed Peale as a “showman.” Whatever discord was felt, the resulting portrait is a tribute to companionable marriage—two people on the same plane, holding hands—and, unlike most double portraits, it is the wife who meets our gaze, intimately and with sparkling intelligence.

Like Samuel Morse, Charles Willson Peale studied painting with Benjamin West in London and pursued dual paths of art and science. Peale founded the nation’s first natural history museum in his own home, where he displayed the skeleton of a mastodon he had excavated. Later the museum moved to the State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia.

Thomas Sully (English-born American, 1783–1872)
Jared Sparks, 1831
Oil on canvas mounted on panel
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1984.2.11

A dashing young man of literary bent is depicted with a finger marking his place in a text—a common trope employed by artists in the Italian and Northern Renaissance. Historian Jared Sparks richly deserved this scholarly immortalization; in 1830, he had completed compiling and editing a twelve-volume series entitled The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution. Sparks would become the seventeenth president of Harvard University.

Like Samuel Morse, Thomas Sully studied with Benjamin West at the Royal Academy in London, and developed a network of mutually supportive artists, arranging for exhibitions and commissions to copy one another’s work. They competed for the prestigious commission for the City Hall in New York to paint the Marquis de Lafayette, which Morse won in 1825. But following the deaths of Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart in 1827 and 1828, respectively, Sully became the preeminent figure in American portraiture.

Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze (German-born American, 1816–1868)
Worthington Whittredge in His Tenth Street Studio, 1865
Oil on canvas
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1984.2.12

The Tenth Street Studio Building, on West 10th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in Manhattan, was home to many of the great names of American art, including Winslow Homer, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, Martin Johnson Heade, William Merritt Chase, Emanuel Leutze, and Worthington Whittredge. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the building’s proximity to New York University and Washington Square Park, where Samuel Morse kept his studio, helped to establish Greenwich Village as the center of the New York art world.

The studios themselves provided a wealth of subjects for artists, as seen in Chase’s painting In the Studio and Leutze’s Worthington Whittredge in His Tenth Street Studio. Whittredge’s erect posture and noble profile made him a convenient model for Leutze’s masterwork, Washington Crossing the Delaware.


Edward Savage (American, 1761–1817)
The Washington Family, 1798
Stipple engraving
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1983.2.34

Edward Savage specialized in portraits of influential Americans of the Revolutionary generation, including Jedidiah and Sarah Morse, parents of Samuel. On commission from Harvard University, Savage painted the newly elected President Washington in 1789, along with portraits of Martha Washington and her grandchildren, Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. Savage combined his individual portraits into this family grouping as both a painting and a print. Attended by an enslaved house servant, possibly William Lee or Christopher Shields, the family is surrounded by symbols of national ambitions: young George rests calipers on a geographical globe, representing the young nation’s global ambitions, as the others unroll plans for the newly designed federal city of Washington, D.C. The plans are held in place by the president’s resting sword.

Presenting the print to Washington in 1798, Savage wrote, “The likenesses of the young people are not much like what they are at present. The Copper-plate was begun and half finished from the likenesses which I painted in New York in the year 1789…The portraits of yourself and Mrs. Washington are generally thought to be likenesses.”

Henry S. Tanner (American, 1786–1858)
A Map of North America, Constructed According to the Latest Information (in four parts), 1822
Hand-colored engraving on woven paper
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Courtesy of Barbara B. Millhouse, IL2003.1.34d

Henry S. Tanner’s New American Atlas of 1822 included a large map of the continent, which reflected many discoveries made after Jedidiah Morse’s influential maps of the previous century, including the findings of the 1804–1806 Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean following the Louisiana Purchase. The map’s southwest quadrant includes a graphic cartouche that provided views of Niagara Falls and the Natural Bridge that were borrowed by the Quaker artist Edward Hicks (see his 

Falls of Niagara in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York 

and his Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch in this exhibition). 

David Johnson (American, 1827–1908)
Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1860
Oil on canvas
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of R. Philip Hanes in honor of Charles H. Babcock, Sr., 1968.2.2

New York artist David Johnson was a member of the second generation of Hudson River School painters. His rigorously realistic landscapes were imbued with a romantic sensibility, often evident in the locations he selected. Nineteenth-century landscape painters made pilgrimages to spectacular natural wonders such as Niagara Falls and the Natural Bridge in Virginia, which Johnson visited in 1860 to create this view.

The exactness of Johnson’s pictorial description echoes a description by Thomas Jefferson, who bought the Natural Bridge from King George III in 1774. Jefferson’s geological analysis concludes with several exclamations: “It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here; so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven! The rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!”

Martin Johnson Heade (American, 1819–1904)
Orchid with Two Hummingbirds, 1871
Oil on prepared panel
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Museum Purchase, 1976.2.8

In the upper branches of the Brazilian rainforest, a gemlike Phaon Comet hummingbird and a Brazilian Fairy hummingbird seem to greet one another beside a gleaming Cattleya orchid. Martin Johnson Heade excelled in precise yet romantic nature studies that captured the changing effects of light, atmosphere, and storms. His trips to Brazil were inspired by the geographical writings of the German naturalist-explorer Alexander von Humboldt, whose descriptions of tropical light challenged painters like Heade and Frederic Edwin Church. “The sun does not merely enlighten,” Humboldt wrote. “It colors the objects, and wraps them in a thin vapor, which, without changing the transparency of the air, renders its tints more harmonious, softens the effects of the light, and diffuses over nature a placid calm, which is reflected in our souls.”

Humboldt’s Cosmos, a magnum opus subtitled “A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe,” inspired a generation of painters and scientists. But Humboldt was inspired in turn by witnessing Samuel Morse at work on his condensed cosmos of European painting, Gallery of the Louvre. Humboldt spent days observing Morse at work, and the two strolled the Louvre discussing its marvels. The acquaintance would be renewed when Humboldt supported the adoption of Morse’s system of telegraphy in Europe.

Alfred Jones (English-born American,1819–1900)
after Richard Caton Woodville, Sr. (American, 1825–1855)
Mexican News, 1851
Hand-colored engraving
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1983.2.36

In his brief, restless life, Richard Caton Woodville achieved wide recognition through prints made after his paintings, which typically focused on closely observed scenes of everyday life. In this work, citizens of an unidentified small town respond to the latest news from the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), in which the United States stood to gain vast territories, including the future states of California, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and part of Colorado. Also at stake in the war was the legality of slavery in the new territories. Outside the protective porch of the American Hotel, an African American father and daughter listen attentively to the news; neither they nor the woman listening from an adjacent window have a political voice as voters, yet the image suggests that they feel political winds just as keenly.

Within just a few years of the 1844 demonstration of the telegraph, two giant enterprises developed that would shape American life for many decades. The Western Union Telegraph Company was formed as the nation’s first industrial monopoly, combining communications interests from New England to the Mississippi Valley. And in 1846 five daily newspapers in New York agreed to share costs of transmitting news of the Mexican-American War by telegraph, thus forming the Associated Press.