The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview
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8. Compliance and Resistance Samuel F. B. Morse, Puritan in Arcadia

PAUL J. STAITI, Mount Holyoke College

When Samuel F. B. Morse's spectacular portrait of his seventeen-year-old daughter, entitled The Muse (Color Plate 10), was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1837, a critic for the New York Mirror effusively praised its design, coloring, and attitude. 1 He considered it "the most perfect full-length portrait we remember to have seen from an American artist." So perfect, he went on, that "it might pass for a Clio by a master of by-gone days."2 Indeed, this last great painting by Morse strongly recalls and is indebted to Italian pictures such as Guercino The Cumean Sybil (Plate 48). In its composition and pose, and in its various details -- the open book and bas-relief, for example -- The Muse closely resembles this and other pictures by Guercino. Yet for all the strength of its Italian pedigree, Morse's work is also defiantly un-Italian. Its butterscotch-colored gown, vermillian divan, and pink-streaked sky have nothing to do with Guercino's famous blue skies and classically balanced palette. Moreover, Morse's interpretation of the classical muse subject carries a non-European inflection. Susan Morse is about to commence drawing on an empty leaf of a sketch book onto which all the lines of the composition converge. She sits arrested, head bracketed against the sky, eyes averted from the paper, mentally oblivious to the gorgeous sky, and morally detached from the trivial frolic on a nearby bas-relief, A pencil is poised but unmotivated on the paper as she beseeches the divine inspiration that will overcome the physical vectors that rigidify and constrict her, that will fill the horror vacui of the blank, upturned page. Waiting for an epiphany, she is held at the breathtaking moment before imaginative freedom when a resplendant but fading late afternoon light defers to a celestial brilliance that illuminates her head and hands and that will make her drawing a divinely sanctioned act. That interpretive aspect of the picture -- the image of the threshold of imagination and the requisite need for mystical agency in the conversion of thought into action -- seems to have as much to do with the Italian Old Masters as it does with Morse's American master, Washington Allston, for whom form was always an aesthetic dilemma posed by idea.

At once in The Muse, Morse is accepting and resisting the European heritage he well knew. As overtly as he evoked the Old Masters, he just as forcefully claimed his modernity and his Americanness. In the pages ahead, we will ask what led Morse to such a complex and at times conflicted attitude toward his European fathers. Why did he both acknowledge and embrace his artistic genealogy and resist and reject it? What cluster of beliefs -- intellectual, moral, artistic, and political -- describe his relationship with Italy?

It is important to know that Morse was born into an ideologically strict family. The eldest son of the Reverend Jedidiah Morse, Samuel deeply absorbed his family's orthodox Calvinism, which he eventually translated and applied to all his adult actions. As a child in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in the 1790s, he witnessed his father's emergence as the architect of the Second Great Awakening, which was Calvinism's evangelical crusade to reassert seventeenth-century church doctrine. Equally inescapable during Samuel's youth was the idea that America was to be the specific site of the millennium. He and his father saw a golden age approaching irresistibly, and each took dramatic steps to ensure its implementation. In their most extreme states of mind each believed he had a divine mandate to execute his mission, and when most exercised, each was gripped by the delusion that networks of concealed forces were trying to

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