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The Fuller Building, 41 East 57th Street, 9th Floor New York City, NY 10022 212.535.8810
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$ 325,000

Diana at the Fountain

Origin United States
Period 19th Century
Materials Oil on canvas
Dimensions
W. 25.75 in; H. 30.5 in;
W. 65.41 cm; H. 77.47 cm;
Condition Excellent.
Creation Date 1813
Description Samuel Finley Breese Morse was the son of Reverend Jedidiah Morse and Elizabeth Finley Breese Morse. Mrs. Morse was the daughter of Samuel and Rebecca Finley Breese of Shrewsbury, New Jersey, and the granddaughter of Samuel Finley, a Presbyterian minister who served as president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Jedidiah Morse, a 1783 graduate of Yale College, published Geography Made Easy (1784), American Geography (1789), The American Gazeteer (1797), and Elements of Geography (1797), securing his reputation as the father of American geography. Geography, however, was Morse’s avocation. He was by profession a Congregationalist minister with a pulpit in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The Reverend Morse was, like his teacher, Jonathan Edwards, a defender of Calvinist orthodoxy and a leading voice in the evangelical revival movement. As eminent as the Reverend Morse was in his time, the enduring historical reputation of the family was to live on in the person of his eldest son, Samuel Finley Breese Morse. While their chosen issues were different, father and son proved to share in common a fierce polemical spirit.

Samuel was the first of eleven children, only three of whom survived infancy. He was educated at the newly founded Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Though the Morse family lived in the shadow of Harvard College, by the time that Samuel was ready for higher education, Harvard had fallen into the hands of theological liberals, anathema to Jedidiah’s rigorous Calvinism. Thus, Samuel and his brothers after him were sent to Yale, where orthodoxy maintained a firm hand. To the discomfort of his parents, Samuel had a mercurial and unsteady temperament. He discovered, as an undergraduate, that he could finance a variety of consumer pleasures through the production and sale of portraits of his classmates. Toward the end of his years at Yale, Morse met Washington Allston (1779–1843) and determined that he would follow the older man’s path: he would become an artist. During a brief interlude in Cambridge after he graduated from Yale in 1810, Morse received encouragement for his career choice both from Allston and from Gilbert Stuart.

In 1811, Morse sailed with Allston to London, planning to pursue art education in systematic fashion. While he remained a protégé of Allston, Morse apprenticed himself in the studio of the renowned American expatriate artist Benjamin West, and, at the same time, enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy. Morse made the acquaintance of another newly arrived young American who was also an aspiring artist, Charles Leslie, and the two young men shared lodgings. In 1812, Morse sculpted a version of The Dying Hercules (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut; see William Kloss, Samuel F. B. Morse [New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1988], p. 26 illus.), which won him a gold medal from the Royal Academy. His related painting, The Dying Hercules (Yale University Art Gallery; see Kloss, p. 27 illus.), was prominently hung at the Academy in 1813, where it received favorable comment. Morse continued to paint portraits to finance his studies in England, but he thoroughly adopted the values of his mentor, Washington Allston. Portraits paid the bills; landscape had its merits; but the mettle of an artist could only be tested and proved by a mastery of history painting.

When Morse returned to America in 1815, he discovered, as had generations before and after him, that the only way for an artist to earn a living in America was to solicit portrait commissions. Morse painted portraits at home in New England, and then in Charleston, South Carolina, where he made connections through Washington Allston and through his maternal uncle, Dr. James E. B. Finley. In 1821, Morse painted what he intended to be a manifesto of his artistic maturity, The House of Representatives (The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; see Kloss, pp. 76–77 illus in color; see especially Chapter 3 “The House of Representatives,” in Paul J. Staiti, Samuel F. B. Morse [Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989], pp. 71–101). Morse planned that the work would tour and reflect credit on its artist as well as generate substantial income. The painting traveled in 1823 and lost money everywhere it went—New Haven, Boston, Salem, New York City, Albany, Hartford, Springfield and Northampton, and New York again. Morse then sent it to his old friend, Charles Leslie, who had remained in London, hoping that Leslie might locate an English buyer. The picture sold for a pittance, changed hands, and wound up in New York in 1847, much the worse for wear. When Morse was apprised of its reappearance, he evinced no interest. He had already closed the door on his life as an artist.

In 1823, Morse, though disappointed, was not vanquished. He moved to New York City, where, in 1825, he led a group of fifteen artists in establishing the National Academy of Design, which he served as founding president from 1826 to 1842. In 1825, Morse won the commission to paint a full-size portrait of General Lafayette for the City Hall in New York (City of New York; see Kloss, p. 94 illus. in color). While he was painting Lafayette, Morse’s wife, Lucretia Pickering Morse, died suddenly, leaving the painter with three young children.

For Morse, New York a good fit. He found companions and patrons in the cultural milieu called “Knickerbocker” after Washington Irving’s fictitious Dutch old New Yorker, Diedrich Knickerbocker. Morse was invited to join the Bread and Cheese Club, founded by James Fenimore Cooper, where his fellow club members included William Cullen Bryant, William Dunlap, James Kent, Philip and Isaac Hone, and Peter Augustus Jay. The Club was a veritable inner circle of New York’s intertwined social, political, artistic, literary, and professional leadership. These connections yielded Morse portrait commissions that continued to support him. (See Albert H. Marckwardt, “The Chronology and Personnel of the Bread and Cheese Club,” in American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography VI [1935–36], pp. 389–99.)

In 1829, Morse sailed again for Europe, this time to see the Old Master paintings that would complete his art education and prepare him for the anticipated Capitol rotunda project. Landing in England, he proceeded to Paris and then traveled south to Italy, visiting Nice, Lucca, Pisa, Florence, and then Rome. His travels were financed by New York friends who commissioned twenty-eight paintings, including landscapes and copies of old masters. Returning to Paris in 1831, Morse painted his second “opus magnus,” The Gallery of the Louvre (Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago; see Kloss, pp. 124–25 illus. in color). If The House of Representatives had been a virtuoso exercise in portrait likeness, The Gallery of the Louvre was an irrefutable demonstration that Morse could paint across genres. While Morse was in Europe, he spent time with his friend, James Fenimore Cooper, also a friend of the Jay family and a correspondent of Catherine Jay’s mother, Mary Clarkson Jay.

During his return voyage to New York on the ship Sully in 1832, Samuel Morse participated in a casual dinner table conversation that changed the course of his life. A fellow passenger was discussing recent European advances in the study of electro-magnetism, and Morse, who had been fascinated by the subject since his student days at Yale, observed, “If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity” (as quoted in Edward Lind Morse, ed., Samuel F. B. Morse: Letters and Journals, Vol. 2 [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914], p. 6). The dinner conversation moved on, but Morse remained fixated on his idea and began to sketch and plot strategies to create a device that would turn his theory into reality. In New York, Morse completed his Louvre picture and, ever hopeful, exhibited it. It met the same indifferent fate as his The House of Representatives of ten years earlier. It failed financially and, in 1834, a discouraged and disgusted Morse sold it for half his original asking price to a neighbor of the upstate Cooper family, George Hyde Clarke, of Otsego, New York, whose portrait he had painted in 1829 (The St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri; see Kloss, p. 134 illus. in color).

Morse’s devastating disappointment in 1837 effectively ended his career as an artist. In 1839, he combined his continuing interest in art with his interest in invention and was among the first Americans to use the photographic invention of his friend, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, whom he had met in Paris. He was also among the first to attempt to adapt it to portraiture. In the 1840s, Morse turned his attention to underwater cable lines, and supervised the laying of a cable between Castle Garden, at the Battery in lower Manhattan, and Governor’s Island in New York Bay. Later, Morse worked with Cyrus W. Field on the successful project to lay the Atlantic Cable.

On June 10, 1871, over two thousand telegraph operators from the United States and Canada gathered in New York City’s Central Park to witness the dedication of a heroic size bronze statue of the “father of the electronic telegraph,” Samuel F. B. Morse. Sculpted by Byron M. Pickett, the work was paid for by the contributions of telegraphers across the North American continent. It remains standing today, facing north just inside the Park at the East 72nd Street entrance. Pickett showed the famed inventor leaning with left hand on a telegraphic instrument, and holding in his right hand a dispatch that revealed, in the language of dots and dashes, the message, “What hath God wrought!” Morse, who was eighty years old at the time, did not attend the ceremony in Central Park, but appeared later that evening at a celebratory program at the Academy of Music. The telegraph operators were joined in the festivities by local luminaries and elected officials including the governors of the States of New York and Massachusetts and the revered editor and poet, William Cullen Bryant, whose portrait Morse had painted forty-six years earlier, in 1825 (National Academy of Design, New York; see Kloss, p. 101 illus. in color). So thoroughly had Morse become associated in the popular mind with his telegraphic invention that Bryant had to remind the audience that the inventor had earlier been an artist.

Diana at the Fountain, painted in 1813, is an important early canvas by Morse in the grand style. In October 1813, Morse traveled to Bristol for the winter in the company of Allston, Charles Leslie, and the author Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He spent five months in Bristol, where he met with success in painting portraits. He received especially warm support from Harman Visger, an American merchant in Bristol, who introduced him to potential portrait clients. Harman Van Slyck Visger (1768–1833) was born in New York State and descended from a long line of Dutch colonial families. His parents, Johannes Visger and Susanna Schermerhorn Visger, hailed from Schenectady. Harman Visger was a merchant and dye manufacturer in New York who brought his trade to Bristol. In 1816 he was appointed Consul at Bristol, England, by President James Madison, and Visger remained in Bristol for the rest of his life.

Visger was an avid collector of fine art and provided crucial support to both Morse and Allston during their stay in Bristol. Writing optimistically from London after his return from Bristol, Morse describes his happy circumstances in Bristol and an obvious affection for Mr. Visger:

I have returned from Bristol to attend the exhibitions and to endeavor to get a picture into Somerset House. My stay in Bristol was very pleasant, indeed, as well as profitable. I was there five months and, in May, shall probably go again and stay all summer. I was getting into good business in the portrait way there, and, if I return, shall be enabled, probably, to support myself as long as I stay in England.

The attention shown me by Mr. Harman Visger and family, whom I have mentioned in a former letter, I shall never forget. He is a rich merchant, an American (cousin to Captain Visscher, my fellow passenger, by whom I was introduced to him). He has a family of seven children. I lived within a few doors of him, and was in and out of his house ever [sic] day. . . . (letter, Morse to Jedidiah Morse, March 12, 1814, as quoted in Edward Lind Morse, ed., Samuel F. B. Morse: His Letters and Journals, Vol. 1 [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914], p. 121).

Morse returned to Bristol that summer but was met with total frustration, receiving neither portrait commissions nor sales of any of his work, and he returned to London empty handed.

As Morse relates in his letter, his primary economic activity in Bristol in the winter of 1813–14 came from painting portraits, but he never lost sight of his ambitions as a history painter. Diana at the Fountain is a mythological subject of the kind he aspired to paint while studying at the Royal Academy in London. Diana was a popular subject from antiquity, with most artists choosing the story of Diana and Actaeon as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Allston is known to have painted a picture at this same moment also called Diana at the Fountain (unlocated), testifying to both the popularity of the subject and the exceedingly close ties between him and Morse at this time. In his own version of Diana at the Fountain, Morse departs somewhat from convention by choosing not to depict the moment when Actaeon espies the nude Diana bathing and thus earns her wrath, but instead describes a more tranquil scene of Diana seated inside a classical-styled fountain entreating one of her nymphs to approach her. Seated on a rock bench, Diana is identified by her crescent-moon symbol hovering over her head. The pose of the standing nymph with her arm holding her drapery above her head appears to be based in part on the Venus Callipyge, a statue from Roman antiquity that was frequently copied and in Morse’s time was believed to represent Venus as she exited the bath.

Diana at the Fountain was unknown in the Morse literature and unseen by the public from the time it was painted until its appearance at auction in 1981. The rediscovery of Diana at the Fountain is especially significant as it is one of but a very small number of historical scenes that are known by Morse from his time in England. The others are The Dying Hercules (1812, Yale University Art Gallery; see Kloss, p. 26 illus.); Marius in Prison (1812, unlocated); Dorothea, based on Don Quixote (1814, unlocated, but known through an etching; see Kloss, p. 30 illus.); and The Judgment of Jupiter (1814–15, Yale University Art Gallery; see Kloss, p. 32 illus.).

Morse sold Diana at the Fountain to Harman Visger while he was in Bristol, and the painting descended in the Visger family until it was sold at auction in London in 1981 (sale, Sotheby’s, London, December 9, 1981, no. 206 illus. in color). An old handwritten note on the back of the painting establishes the Visger family provenance. Also in that same sale (no. 205 illus. in color) was a major mythological subject piece by Allston: Hermia and Helena (about 1813–18, purchased by Hirschl & Adler Galleries and to the Smithonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.), which also belonged to Visger and followed the same provenance. Diana at the Fountain also bears a canvas stamp on an old relining of the painting of the restorer and framer Richard Clarke, who was active in Bristol from about 1870 to 1875. The somewhat atypical signature on Diana at the Fountain, written in bold block letters with serifs, is virtually the same as Morse’s signature on The Judgment of Jupiter, also painted in England.
Styles / Movements Realism
Dealer Reference Number APG 8876
Incollect Reference Number 256723
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