April 24, 1840

April 24, 1840

The daguerreotype is undoubtedly destined to produce a great revolution in art, and we, as artists, should be aware of it and rightly understand its influence. This influence, both on ourselves and the public generally, will, I think, be in the highest degree favorable to the character of art.

Its influence on the artist must be great. By a simple and easily portable apparatus, he can now furnish his studio with fac-simile sketches of nature, landscapes, buildings, groups of figures, &c., scenes selected in accordance with his own peculiarities of taste: but not, as heretofore, subjected to his imperfect sketchy translations into crayon or Indian ink drawings, and occupying days or even weeks in their execution; but painted by Nature’s self with a minuteness in detail, which the pencil of light in her hands alone can trace, and with a rapidity, too, which will enable him to enrich his collection with a superabundance of materials and not copies; — they cannot be called copies of nature, but portions of nature herself.

Must not such a collection modify, of necessity, the artist’s productions? Think how perspective, and, as a consequence, proportion also, are illustrated by these results. How the problems of optics are, for the first time, confirmed and sealed by nature’s own stamp! See, also, what lessons of light and shade are brought under the closest scrutiny of the artist!

To the architect it offers the means of collecting the finest remains of the ancient, as well as the finest productions of modern architecture, with their proportions and details of ornament, executed in a space of time, and with an exactness, which it is impossible to compress in the ordinary modes of an architect’s study.

I have but a moment to speak of the effect of the daguerreotype on the public taste. Can these lessons of nature’s art (if I may be allowed the seeming paradox), read every day by thousands charmed with their beauty, fail of producing a juster estimate of the artist’s studies and labors, with a better and sounder criticism of his works? Will not the artist, who has been educated in Nature’s school of truth, now stand forth pre-eminent, while he, who has sought his models of style among fleeting fashions and corrupted tastes, will be left to merited neglect?

I should feel, gentlemen, that I had been greatly deficient, if I did not add a few words attesting my admiration for the genius of the great discoverer of this photogenic process. I have for months been occupied with experiments, repeating those of Daguerre, and modifying both the apparatus of the process by my own experiences and the suggestions of scientific friends, and, as the result of all, I must say that at every step of my progress, my admiration for his genius and perseverance has increased. I could not but constantly reflect, if, with the details fully revealed, of a process, whereby a sure result could be obtained, so much to discourage be encountered, what must have been his discouragement, who, when one experiment after another failed, had only darkness, uncertainty, and doubt for his comforters! And yet he triumphed over all, and in the lists of fame the name of Daguerre will deservedly stand by the side of Columbus and Galileo, and Papin and Fulton.

Gentlemen, in closing, I offer you the following sentiment:— Honor to Daguerre, who first introduced Nature to us, in the character of Painter.

Samuel F.B. Morse, speech at the annual supper of the National Academy of Design, as reported by Marcus Aurelius Root in The Camera and The Pencil, or The Heliographic Art (1864).