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Thursday, June 16, 2011

James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel F. B. Morse, “constantly together” in Paris in the 1830s

In his bestselling new group biography, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough devotes an entire chapter to the remarkable friendship between the writer James Fenimore Cooper and the artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse. The two first met in Washington during Marquis de Lafayette’s triumphal Grand Tour of the United States in 1824–25. Renewing their acquaintance in New York, they became fast friends and traveling companions soon thereafter in Italy and France.

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.
In Gallery of the Louvre, the masterpiece that would establish Morse’s reputation as a painter, we can recognize Cooper and his wife Susan in the lefthand corner, watching their daughter Sue, a student of Morse’s, as she paints. The painter offering instruction in the center is Morse himself.

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:
Related LOA works: James Fenimore Cooper: The Leatherstocking Tales, Volume One; Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology (includes selections from Nathaniel Parker Willis’s 1830s dispatches and James Fenimore Cooper’s vivid account of attending six parties in one night)

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