No review can do justice to the range of McCullough's book, the number of intriguing Americans he chronicles, or the important works they produced. Notable, memorable, and especially moving are McCullough's accounts of George Catlin, painter of Native Americans, and the group of Iowans who visited Paris with him; of P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb's triumphant visit; of Harriet Beecher Stowe's almost physical reaction to Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa in the Louvre; of Augustus Saint-Gaudens's rise from a poor apprentice to masterful creator of revolutionary sculptures; of John Singer Sargent's genius as a painter and the creation of his scandalous portrait of the alluring "Madame X".
One of the most interesting figures among McCullough's gathering of geniuses is Samuel Morse, known to most Americans as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse code. McCullough covers the time in Morse's life in Paris when he strove to create "a particularly ambitious tour-de-force" - a painting he designed for Americans entitled The Gallery of the Louvre, which portrayed what Morse considered to be the important paintings in the Louvre Museum. McCullough writes:
It was to be a giant interior of the Louvre. The canvas Morse had prepared measured six by nine feet, making it greater in size than his House of Representatives of a decade earlier. And it was to be an infinitely greater test of his skill. Instead of a crowd of congressmen's faces to contend with, he had set himself to render a generous sampling of the world's greatest works of art, altogether thirty-eight paintings - landscapes, religious subjects, and portraits, including Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa - and convey in miniature the singular beauty and power of each... No American artist had yet undertaken the interior of the Louvre... No American prior to Morse... had set himself so difficult a Paris subject, a task that would require a year's work.
In his painting, Morse re-imagined a gallery in the Louvre by manipulating its collection - McCullough calls it a "musee imaginaire" - installing himself, his friend James Fenimore Cooper, and Cooper's wife and daughter within the gallery. Morse also included images of female painters copying works from the walls, thus admitting women into the world of art. McCullough observes that Morse "...was a man on a mission, a kind of cultural evangelical... He would bring the good news of time-honored European art home to his own people, for the benefit and betterment of his country."
To hear David McCullough discuss Morse's painting, The Gallery of the Louvre, click on the link to the NPR interview.
This article was originally published in August 2011, and has been updated for the
May 2012 paperback release.
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