Friday, March 16, 2012

ism of the week - week 5

Each week during our current exhibition, ...isms: Unlocking Art's Mysteries, we will post deeper insight into one of the paintings on view. Past the credit line, past the exhibition label, Assistant Curator Amanda Burdan shares her thoughts:

Although Samuel F.B. Morse made a name for himself as the inventor of the telegraph, his early career as a painter and photographer is far less known. While studying art abroad in London, a remark in a letter to his parents in 1811 foreshadowed his future successes, as he wrote: “I wish that in an instant I could communicate the information, but three thousand miles are not passed over in an instant and we must wait four long weeks before we can hear from each other.”

His ambition to be a painter of great American historical subjects, or at least of landscape paintings, met with disappointment when he realized that it was portraiture which truly drove the American art market so early in the nineteenth century. In this respect his mother proved correct when she wrote to him in 1814 saying: “You must not expect to paint anything in this country for which you receive any money to support youself but portraits.” Even in what Morse thought of as the lowly realm of portraiture, he made a good living with commissions of the highest rank, including Presidents James Monroe and John Adams as well as John Hancock and General Lafayette.

The subject of this portrait is less stately and well known. Louisa Walter Bishop Hughes was a well-educated New Haven woman who attended Miss Pierce’s Litchfield Academy from 1818 to 1820. It is likely that this portrait was made around the time she attended the school, perhaps as part of her debut in society. She appears youthful in the portrait, lacking the elaborate fashions and hairstyles Morse often imaged for married women.

Late in her life Louisa recorded her thoughts and sorrows in journals, which have been preserved. After a particularly difficult period, she began a new journal, writing: “I can scarcely make up my mind to begin a new book—I look back upon the past and the eager hope with which I began the last—the change is great. I have drank deep of the bitter cup of Death. My treasures have been taken from me. The record of my life is a record of the graves’ solitary occupants—no, let me say of the inhabitants of heaven. Though I am even bereft of my first born, I will believe God has wounded me in love to them, and for myself, His will, not mine, be done.” Louisa’s mournful lament brings to mind Morse’s first message on his new telegraph in 1844: the fateful question, “What hath God Wrought?”

Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1892)

Louisa W.B. Hughes

Oil on wood
Florence Griswold Museum

Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company

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