(American; b. Charlestown, Mass., 1791–d. New York City, 1872)
The House of Representatives
86 7/8 x 130 5/8 in. (220.7 x 331.8 cm)
Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund
Morse moved from New Haven, Connecticut to Washington, D.C. in November 1821 to begin painting The House of Representatives. It was a huge project representing America’s daring experiment with democracy. For four months in a studio in the Capitol, Morse painted individual portrait studies of each man represented here before returning to New England, where he completed the monumental canvas. Representatives, Supreme Court Justices, House staff, and members of the press are shown as the Seventeenth Congress prepares for an 1822 evening session to consider the nation’s Indian policy—indicated by the presence of the Pawnee Indian chief Petalasharo in the upper right gallery.
Hoping for artistic and financial success by exhibiting his painting for paid admission, Morse toured it to Boston and New York, as well as to several cities along the Connecticut River. Unfortunately, he overestimated the sophistication of his audience. Choosing to ignore the conventions of history painting, he focused on the essentially abstract nature of democracy in action, rather than on a specific dramatic moment such as a victory in battle. Too subtle for public taste, The House of Representatives was a financial failure. Discouraged, Morse turned away from painting to pursue his scientific interests, one happy result of which was his invention of the electromagnetic telegraph.