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Samuel F. B. Morse
(1791 – 1872)

Samuel F. B. Morse
Portrait of Elizabeth Ann Breese Morse, (the artist’s mother),
oil on canvas, inscribed verso, 34X27 inches (image)
Samuel F. B. Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts in April, 1791, the son of Calvinist minister Jedidiah Morse and Elizabeth Ann Breese. He is considered one of the most important names in both American art history and American intellectual history.

After his graduation from Yale, Morse accompanied Washington Allston to England, inspired by the presence of Benjamin West, the American-born President of the Royal Academy. Returning to the U.S. in 1815, Morse, like Allston, discovered that the American public had little taste for academic art, and he turned to portraiture to make ends meet. After a brief stay in Charleston, South Carolina, Morse established a studio in New York City in 1823. He achieved recognition for his painting of the House of Representative, an attempt perhaps to rival John Trumbell, and his portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette. Morse also completed portraits of former president John Adams and of James Monroe. Concerned, like his contemporary Asher B. Durand, with the lack of an American venue for training artists and exhibiting their work, Morse became the driving force in the founding of the National Academy of Design in 1825, and he served as the Academy’s first President. Depressed by the deaths of his wife and parents, Morse returned to Europe in 1829, travelling through Switzerland, France, and Italy, at times in the company of James Fenimore Cooper. It was upon his return from Europe in 1832 that Morse began to experiment with electricity, constructing a crude version of the telegraph by 1835. In early 1838, Morse debuted his device and a rudimentary version of the code which bears his name. With the help of Leonard Gale, Joseph Henry, and Alfred Vail, and with the logistical backing of Francis Smith and Ezra Cornell, Morse laid a cable from Washington to Baltimore and successfully tested his telegraph in May, 1844.

Throughout the remainder of his life, he sought to obtain international recognition for his invention. Morse died in New York City in 1872. Morse ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City in 1836 and for Congress in 1854. Among his many other accomplishments, he was co-founder of Vassar College in 1861.

Exhibited: Among the many museums where work by Morse can be found are the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the National Gallery of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Fogg Art Museum (Harvard), the Chrysler Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy, and the New York Historical Society.


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