Morse's Kunstkammer

I am always fascinated by paintings that are paintings of a gallery or a viewing room – they are basically a painting of multiple paintings (similar to Rockwell’s Picasso vs. Sargent). Two of the best examples of this genre, called kunstkammer (German for “cabinet of curiosities”) are Modern Rome and Ancient Rome by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691 – 1765)

For me the most fascinating kunstkammer painting is Samuel Morse’s (of the telegraph and Morse code fame), Gallery of the Louvre which he painted from 1831 to 1833. Before he connected the two sides of the Atlantic with a telegraphic message, Morse tried to do so with this monumental painting. Morse started his career as a painter and was a well-known portrait artist when he painted this work, primarily for the cultural and artistic education of the American public. Morse and his great friend and author James Fenimore Cooper came up with the idea of this painting to firstly, record the world’s greatest art, and secondly, to introduce young Americans to refined European art.

Samuel Morse’s Gallery in the Louvre 1831-33

The massive 6 by 9 feet painting is of the Salon Caree in the Louvre; its walls Morse lined with some of the world’s most famous art.  In the foreground is Morse himself as he looks at a painting his daughter is working on, and to the back left is Cooper with his wife and daughter.  They are surrounded by brilliant small scale replicas of the works of Leonardo, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Poussin, Claude, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Carvaggio among others. 

Morse arranged the paintings as he wished and probably in some order that he liked them, and altered relative sizes to fit his canvas.  We can see Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Raphael’s La Belle Jardiniere. At the bottom row of paintings – on either side of Mona Lisa- we see two versions of Christ Carrying the Cross – perhaps Morse wanted to highlight the different ways artists handled the same subject matter.  

What a powerhouse of talent Morse must have been – it’s remarkable, almost incredulous, that his talented artist then went on to invent the single wire telegraph and the Morse Code.

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