Sunday, July 17, 2011

A New Look: Samuel F. B. Morse's Gallery of the Louvre

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through July 8, 2011

This painting was on display for only a very short period of time, and if it hadn't been for an article in the Post during its stay, I would have missed it entirely.

Little did I know, but Samuel Morse, who I knew merely as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code (as if that weren't sufficient accomplishments for one lifetime), started out as a painter. Now granted, he wasn't a great success as an artist, which is why he turned to other pursuits, but he was skilled enough to produce this painting of a gallery in the Louvre.

It's a real room, but he's placed his favorite paintings and sculpture in it, replacing the room's actual contents. He's also put himself and his friends in the gallery; one of his friends is the author James Fenimore Cooper. The Post article made much of the fact that the lone Europeans in the painting are a woman (wearing a delightfully ridiculous hat - really, is there anything better than humorous headgear?) and a child leaving the gallery, as if to suggest that Europe was being driven out of its hallowed halls by Americans. I'll grant you, Morse and his friends do look a noisy bunch, enough to drive any serious student of art to another, less crowded gallery, but there could be any number of reasons for the woman to leave. Perhaps her child has had her fill of art and now wishes to have ice cream? I've heard many similar conversations in my trips to the National Gallery.

The Post also criticized Morse's rendition of the Mona Lisa, saying it wasn't as good as the Da Vinci original. Granted, it's not, but that's an awfully high bar to set, especially since the Mona Lisa in this painting is quite small. I think he did a pretty good job of copying the work - certainly, it's recognizable, which I think is the point. The display of paintings, one on top of another, from floor to ceiling is quite authentic. When I visited the Louvre, I saw several galleries with the same type of arrangement. I don't care for it - I find I can't concentrate on anything, as there are just too many paintings to see. Also, being rather short, I find it almost impossible to see the paintings at the ceiling, and I wind up with a very stiff neck. Paintings at eye level are just fine with me; I'm glad the fashion in museum displays changed.

It occurred to me that it would be rather fun to make a list of all the art works in the painting and see them all - a sort of artistic scavenger hunt.

Verdict: Well worth a look, and I was able to see the painting right after reading the Post review, so I had it fresh in my mind when I was at the Gallery.

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