In November 1829, a 38-year-old American artist, Samuel F. B. Morse, set sail on a 3,000-mile, 26-day voyage from New York, bound for Paris. He intended to realize the ambition recorded on his passport: his occupation, Morse stated, was “historical painter.”
Already esteemed as a portraitist, Morse, who had honed his artistic skills since his college years at Yale, had demonstrated an ability to take on large, challenging subjects in 1822, when he completed a 7- by 11-foot canvas depicting the House of Representatives in session, a subject never before attempted. An interlude in Paris, Morse insisted, was crucial: “My education as a painter,” he wrote, “is incomplete without it.”
In Paris, Morse set himself a daunting challenge. By September 1831, visitors to the Louvre observed a curious sight in the high-ceilinged chambers. Perched on a tall, movable scaffold of his own contrivance, Morse was completing preliminary studies, outlining 38 paintings hung at various heights on the museum walls—landscapes, religious subjects and portraits, including Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, as well as works by masters including Titian, Veronese and Rubens.
Working on a 6- by 9-foot canvas, Morse would execute an interior view of a chamber in the Louvre, a space containing his scaled-down survey of works from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Not even the threat of a cholera outbreak slowed his pace.