When Cooper brought his family to Europe in 1826, he found he was already an international sensation, as America’s most famous author, with The Last of the Mohicans on display in every Parisian bookshop. During his seven years abroad, Cooper continued to write novels set in America, publishing The Prairie, The Red Rover, and The Water-Witch during this period. By 1832, when Morse began his grand project—a giant interior view of the Louvre that would recreate in miniature thirty-eight European masterworks—the two had become inseparable, as Cooper reveals in his description of his daily routine in a letter that March:
I get up at eight, read the papers, breakfast at ten, sit down to the quill at ½ past ten, work till one, throw off my morning gown, draw on my boots and gloves, take a cane . . . and go to the Louvre, where I find Morse stuck up on a high working stand, perch myself astraddle of one of the seats, and bore him.Reviewers often praised Cooper’s “painterly” descriptions, which may explain the many helpful suggestions he records offering his friend while he watched:
Lay it on here, Samuel–more yellow–the nose is too short–the eye too small–damn it, if I had been a painter what a picture I should have painted.
Nathaniel Parker Willis, whom Adam Gopnik has said “invented the casual voice in American journalism,” was also in Paris at the time as a correspondent for the New York Mirror and McCullough often draws on his firsthand observations. Here he is sketching the two friends as they tour the Tuileries:
Here come two of our countrymen who are to be seen constantly together—Cooper and Morse. That is Cooper with the blue surtout buttoned up to his throat and his hat over his eyes. What a contrast between the faces of the two men! Morse with his kind, open, gentle countenance, the very picture of goodness and sincerity; and Cooper, dark and corsair-looking, with his brows down over his eyes, and his strongly lined mouth fixed in an expression of moodiness and reserve. The two faces, however, are not equally just to their owners—Morse is all that he looks to be, but Cooper’s features do him decided injustice. I take pride in the reputation which this distinguished countryman of ours has for humanity and generous sympathy . . . the untiring liberality of Mr. Cooper particularly, is a fact of common admission and praise.Cooper had commissioned some paintings from Morse, and Morse hoped he would buy Gallery of the Louvre. But Morse was back in New York when he finished it, more than a year later, and Cooper’s offer never came. Morse hoped the painting would bring $2,500; it sold for $1,300. In 1982, the Terra Foundation for American Art, a museum in Chicago, bought it for $3,250,000, at the time the highest sum ever paid for a work by an American artist.
Also of interest:
- James Fenimore Cooper, John James Audubon, Gene Stratton-Porter on the Passenger Pigeon, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- The American Literary Blog wrote about Cooper’s concern about pirated European editions in “Cooper and his last Mohican”
- David McCullough talks about The Greater Journey at the Dallas-Fort Worth World Affairs Council on June 8 (audio; 52 minutes)
- George Dillon has created a key to the masterworks in Gallery of the Louvre at this University of Washington website