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).

Divine Mandate

Divine Mandate

Samuel F.B. Morse was the eldest son of Jedidiah Morse, a minister instrumental in the Second Great Awakening of evangelical Christianity in the United States. Both carried with them a sense of divine mission; it is a matter of little surprise that the first words transmitted by the telegraph were “What hath God wrought?” Though Morse did not choose the words, he loved the verse so much that he quoted it frequently.

Samuel Morse and his father were staunch Calvinists with a belief in the elect. Both argued their cause with brutal rhetoric. Jedidiah fought against the corruption he saw in Jeffersonian democracy and its teeming masses. Samuel argued for the continuation of slavery, and against Catholicism and foreign influence. The fountains of their belief flowed from millennialism and evangelicalism. Both sought to resurrect the “city on the hill,” and harbored a deep hatred for anything that might threaten it.

Though he studied art in England at the peak of romanticism, Samuel Morse’s theories of art were largely conventional. He met and attempted a portrait of Coleridge, but his theories of imagination derive more from Edmund Burke and Joshua Reynolds than the romantic aesthetic of his teachers at the Royal Academy. While it is possible that he didn’t understand the complexities of romantic theories of vision, it seems more likely that he really didn’t want to acknowledge them.

But in a profound way, Morse was an artistic revolutionary. Dissatisfied with the American Academy of Art when he returned home, he was instrumental in the foundation of the National Academy of Design. The American Academy was formed as a joint-stock artistic community; membership was $25. Only members could draw from their stock of casts, and it had no school of art. The National Academy took a more egalitarian approach. Where the emphasis of the American Academy, headed by John Trumbull, was connoisseurship, the emphasis of the National Academy was practice. For a $5 membership fee, the new organization offered a growing collection of materials for copyists, and classes on a diverse number of topics.

Morse shared with his father the awareness of the importance of rhetoric. Morse’s introductory lectures on art for the National Academy were not published in his lifetime, but rather repeated orally for decades. His compulsion was to quote the Scottish rhetorician Hugh Blair as often as he quoted Reynolds, and he forcefully argued for a uniquely American school that was not built solely on the imitation of old masters. The “highest form” of art in this period was history painting, and though he stressed the accuracy of transcription as a pedagogical tool, he did not see mechanical copying as art. The real job of transcription was the discovery of the essence behind things, delivered unto the people by an artistic elect.

Portraits were a lesser form, but they were the way that Morse earned his daily bread. He was a skilled miniaturist, and a competent painter of portraits, but he failed in his efforts to attain support as a history painter. His forceful and often paranoid rhetoric scared people. It is not surprising that Congress chose Trumbull to paint the historical tableaus in the Capital over Morse. Rejected as an artist, he gave up serious painting around 1837. In 1839, he became one of the first teachers of the daguerreotype process in the United States. He never saw photography as an art, but rather a method of generating fac-similes for artists to copy and improve upon.

Morse attained financial security in 1844 from his invention of the telegraph. He ran for office on an anti-populist, anti-immigration platform. His democratic reforms instituted in the National Academy eventually eroded any hopes for an elect culture; the coming generations of artists trained there did not share his hatred for the general population.

Nerve Centers

Nerve Center

It would not be long ere the whole surface of this country would be channeled for those nerves which are so diffuse, with the speed of thought, a knowledge of all that is occurring throughout the land, making, in fact, one neighborhood of the whole country.

Samuel F.B. Morse, journal entry, c. 1844

The “human interest” dimension is simply that of immediacy of participation in the experience of others that occurs with instant information. People become instant, too, in their response of pity or fury when they must share the common extension of the central nervous system with the whole of mankind. Under these conditions, “conspicuous waste” or “conspicuous consumption” become lost causes, and even the hardiest of the rich dwindle into modest ways of timid service to mankind.

At this point, some may still enquire why the telegraph should create “human interest,” and why the earlier press did not.

Marshall McLuhan, “Telegraph: The Social Hormone” in Understanding Media c. 1964

*McLuhan was wrong here. “Human interest” stories began to grow in the press around 1830, as the prices of newspapers were lowered and markets expanded. A common mistake, really, confusing economics with electrons.

The electricity that lights the fire can’t do much without the fuel. The confluence of the nerve metaphors is striking, as is the reoccurrence of the global village in the writings of both men. Despite the error, I think I like McLuhan’s idea of telegraphic hormones better than Morse’s dispatches to the populace from the citizens on the hill (both ideas are explored elsewhere in their writings). On the other hand, I’m not too thrilled with Hillary Clinton’s village or MCI’s neighborhood either.