Biographies & Memoirs


An Affection of the Heart


THE FAILURE of his House of Representatives left Finley nowhere. “My plans for the future are in much confusion,” he told Lucrece. “I dream of this plan & that.” For a while he took to the road again. He tried Albany, but wound up reading in his room, without business. People told him he had come at the wrong time—“the same tune that has been rung in my ears so long!” He tried New York City, boarding cheaply for $2.25 a week and sleeping on the floor of his studio. But New Yorkers were devoted to making money, not spending it. “No business at all,” he recorded; “All the artists agree there’s nothing doing.” Over one twelve-day period only two people came to see his samples. “I wait, and wait, and wait.” His clothes needed patching and he borrowed money for his necessities. Once again spending New Year’s apart from Lucrece, and alone, he listened to the city greet 1824 with an all-night din of trumpets and kettles.

Finley tried to revive his artistic career by changing its course. “I could easily be a sculptor,” he decided. After all, his statue of Hercules had taken a prize in London, and he could now apply to sculpture all he had since learned of painting. Sculpture was an art little practiced in America, too, “a field in which I cannot have, in the nature of the case, a single competitor.” As a move in that direction, he had conceived a lathelike device for carving in marble or another substance a replica of any statue or vase. He built a small model and got a New Haven mechanic to construct the working machine. But it proved wearying because turned by foot, and so heavy with its marble block as to make the floor tremble. Finley also learned that a marble-carving machine had already been patented. The truth was that America at the moment simply could not afford artists: “All are poor & discouraged, some are leaving the profession others leaving the country.”

Finley thought he might join the exodus, however. Perhaps to Mexico. The country was Americanizing its government, ready to adopt its first federal constitution, choose representatives, and elect its first president. It would enjoy the protection of the United States, too; in his annual message to Congress, President Monroe had declared that the Americas were no longer to be considered subjects for colonization by European powers. Given the current friendliness of Mexico toward the United States, Finley thought of pursuing his profession there, taking along The House of Representatives for exhibition. He might also become an art dealer. The upper classes of Mexico City lived lavishly, and the country probably harbored some important paintings. He might be able to interest speculators in buying them for resale in the United States, the profits to be split.

Finley began by seeking a position as private secretary to the new American minister to Mexico, Ninian Edwards, a former governor of Illinois. He wrote to several congressmen trying to enlist their influence, noting that his work as a painter would not interfere with his government duties: Rubens, for example, had done some of his finest portraits in England while serving as ambassador to the court. It turned out that Edwards already had a secretary. But he invited Finley to at least accompany the legation to Mexico, the American government providing free passage from New Orleans to Vera Cruz.

Finley’s latest scheme alarmed Lucrece: “How can I consent to have you be at such a distance?” She had given birth again, this time to a son named Charles Walker. Sickly at first, the infant vomited incessantly, and once even seemed to be dying. A frightened letter from her had brought Finley rushing back from Albany. But the episode left her feeling so guilty that she resolved to keep to herself whatever she suffered that might interrupt his work. She did suffer, her already frayed health worn down by the fatigue of caring for two young children: “I sometimes despair of ever enjoying any thing like health and strength again.” She feared opening letters from Finley lest they contain more news about Mexico, with the possibility of his being gone for two or three entire years.

The first week in April, however, Finley left for Mexico—the worst but one of their many separations. Lucrece and Jedediah went with him from New Haven to New York, where he took the steamboat for Philadelphia—the first leg of his journey to Washington, where he would join the legation, accompany it to New Orleans, then on to Vera Cruz. Lucrece planned to move back to her family’s home in Concord, but expected little solace: “no one can supply that place in my affections which you have ever occupied.” On his trip to Philadelphia, Finley himself was overcome by recollections of leaving his mother and little Susan and Charles in New Haven: tears and kisses; his children frolicking, too young to understand; his desolate last look at every room, “farewell, farewell, seemed written on the very walls.”

When he reached Washington, Finley learned that he had set out for his long journey badly unprepared. He was told that he would not find bed and bedding on the road to Mexico, and should have brought them along. He should have brought a saddle, too, and his own provisions. And he would not be able to wear the black suit he had packed: to Mexicans, a man dressed in black meant either a priest or a Freemason. He bought a bed in Washington and sent the suit back to New Haven, asking for a blue one and for a keg of crackers to sustain him on the road.

A week later, still in Washington, Finley received jolting news. The legation’s departure for Mexico would be long delayed. Perhaps suspended. Ninian Edwards had been detained on a warrant while a House committee investigated serious charges of fraud he had presented against a congressman. In some desperation, Finley went to see the Secretary of the Navy, to find out whether the vessel, too, was to be detained. If not, he might proceed to Mexico himself, leaving the legation to follow after the House inquiry. But neither staying nor going seemed a good idea: “to go back seems ruin, and forward hazard.”

Finley went back—all the way to New Haven. Sending to New Orleans for the baggage he had shipped on, he felt more dejected than ever. To what was his latest defeat due if not to his own religious failings?—failure in his duties toward others, failure to pray enough, failure to keep his religious resolves: “I must plead guilty, guilty; and feel that it is but perfectly just that God should desert me, when I have deserted him.”

Whatever the cause, the sudden death of his Mexican venture left Finley where he was after exhibiting The House of Representatives—without prospects. “I can form no plans for the future, they have all been frustrated,” he wrote to Lucrece; “all is darkness and gloomy suspence before me.” He could bear hopelessness, if his thwarted plans affected only himself. But on his success had hung the well-being of Lucrece and their children, who deserved better of him: “when I see before me poverty & neglect, the deepest, severest pang I feel is that I am a married man.”

For a few months Finley painted in New Hampshire and Maine, disgusted with scrambling for commissions: “I have run about long enough.” But where to stop running? New York beckoned, although he had had little success in the city. “If I am to live in poverty it will be as well there as any where, and if to make money, why there is the place.” New York had yet to reap the profits of the soon-to-open Erie Canal, connecting its trade and busy harbor to the fastgrowing West. But it would be wise, he believed, to make himself known in the city before the wealth began pouring in. New York was booming anyway, everywhere putting up new hotels and banks and shops and publishing firms, on its way to becoming the London of the New World. And with the city’s best-known artist, John Trumbull, growing old, he would have no serious rival in painting.

Finley was further drawn to New York by the presence of his brothers. They had moved there the year before to publish a large four-page weekly, the New York Observer. An immediate success, it attracted some 2400 subscribers in the first three months, aimed at 10,000, and would become the most widely circulated religious paper in the country. Its news and articles focused on the state of Protestantism worldwide—“The Sabbath in Scotland,” “The Bible in the Prussian Army.” The Observer offered much of secular interest as well—book reviews, commodity prices, speeches in Congress. Finley had designed a vignette for the masthead, a dove with olive branch and rainbow, and the national motto e pluribus unum.

Unlike Finley, his brothers were thriving. Work as a full-time religious journalist gave Richard an uncharacteristic sense of purpose. Regarding the paper as “an incalculable service to the Christian public,” he energetically rounded up subscribers and composed advertising circulars. Sidney, trained in the law, needed no such steadying. Jedediah once compared him and Finley to the tortoise and the hare: Sidney phlegmatic, Finley impulsive. The most prudent member of the family, Sidney, unlike Finley, distrusted visionary prospects: “new schemes have been the ruin of the Morses,” he said. As the Observer flourished, he and Richard detached themselves from New Haven and stopped working on their father’s geographies: “we have shone long enough with borrowed light,” Sidney explained, “… wish now we may shine for ourself.”

Sidney E. Morse (ca. 1860) (New-York Historical Society)

Finley settled in New York in mid-November, renting a studio at 96 Broadway, a few blocks from his brothers’ Pine Street newspaper office. To his surprise and relief he did well. The new demand for his painting may have been due to his altered view of it. Instead of trying to line up and dash off many commissions, he sought only as many as he could handle while painting carefully. “I have no disposition to be a nine days’ wonder, all the rage for a moment and then forgotten forever.” At the same time he took on a few promising pupils, such as the nineteen-year-old rustic portraitist Erastus Field. “My storms are partly over,” he wrote, “and a clear and pleasant day is dawning upon me.”

With the pleasant day came some good luck as well. Three months before Finley settled in the city, the Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834) had arrived in New York harbor to begin a year-long farewell tour of the country that would take him to all twenty-four states. Now the only surviving general of the American Revolution, he came at the invitation of Congress and of President Monroe, to a tumultuous reception. A flotilla of seven decorated steamboats manned by two hundred sailors swept him from Staten Island to the Battery, where he was welcomed by ringing bells, roaring cannon, and a crowd of more than fifty thousand.

To Finley as to Jedediah, Lafayette was a near-mythical figure, scarcely less beloved than Washington himself. Lafayette incarnated the fact that the American Revolution, in rejecting monarchy and aristocracy, marked the beginning of modern world history. And he remained a leading international spokesman for representative institutions and the universal right of liberty.

New York City planned to commemorate Lafayette’s visit by ordering a life-size portrait of the general. Enthusiastic for the idea, Finley wrote to the chairman of the portrait committee, nominating himself. He sent along testimonials from Charleston, and offered to submit samples of his pictures of New Yorkers. The intense competition for this uniquely important commission brought applications from such well-known artists as Rembrandt Peale and Thomas Sully. But the honor went to Finley, with a fee of about a thousand dollars. An engraving of the portrait would be made, certain to be popular, for which he would receive half the profits.

“We must begin to feel proud of your acquaintance,” Lucrece wrote to Finley. His extravagant success also heartened her by its promise of ending their separation. “I think now that we can indulge a rational hope that the time is not very far distant when you can be happy in the bosom of your much loved family, and that your dear children can enjoy the permanent advantage of an affectionate father’s counsel and care.” Finley spoke of renting a house and settling his family in New York—a possibility all the more desirable to Lucrece because she was pregnant again. She felt worse than usual, but to spare him anxiety said little of her chest spasms and other distresses. Instead, she urged him to take advantage of his sudden good fortune, and return home only when business allowed. “I trust I shall be safely carried thro’ all that I shall be called to suffer.”

Lafayette had moved on to Washington. Before going there to paint him, Finley made a quick trip to New Haven, apparently arriving about two weeks after the birth of his second son, named James Edward Finley. When he reached Washington, around February 8, there was no time to lose, for Lafayette was scheduled to leave soon on a triumphal southern tour, taking him as far as New Orleans.

On first shaking hands with Lafayette, Finley saw a tall man with a florid complexion who walked with a slight limp. He was professionally pleased by the nobility of Lafayette’s massive face, and personally overawed: “This is the man now before me, the very man … who spent his youth, his fortune, and his time, to bring about (under Providence) our happy Revolution; the friend and companion of Washington, the terror of tyrants, the firm and consistent supporter of liberty … this is the man, the very identical man!” They breakfasted together, and Lafayette introduced Finley to his son as, inevitably, “the son of the geographer.” Finley started on the full-length portrait by making an oil study of Lafayette’s face. But after three days of sittings he felt he had not done the general justice, and asked to have another few sittings when Lafayette returned to New York from his tour of the South.

Finley’s presence in Washington allowed him to witness a historic political event—the debates in the House to resolve the contest for the presidency between John Quincy Adams and Senator Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. In the recent election Jackson had won a majority of the popular vote, but fell short of a majority in electoral votes. In such a case, the Constitution provided for the president to be chosen by the House of Representatives, voting by states. In what became infamously known as the “corrupt bargain,” the Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, threw his support and the vote of Kentucky to Adams, electing him president—and later receiving from Adams an appointment as Secretary of State.

Finley not only heard the debates in the House, but also attended President Monroe’s levee the evening after the decisive balloting. In a large crowd that included Lafayette, he looked on as Jackson shook the hand of President-elect Adams and cordially congratulated him on his victory. For some Americans, Jackson was the hero of the War of 1812, a man of the people; others saw him as a hotheaded brawler, a potential Napoleon. To Finley it seemed that in bearing his defeat manfully, Jackson showed a “nobleness of mind” that commanded respect. Actually, the enraged Jackson believed that Adams and Clay had stolen the presidency from him.

Excited at being in the Washington whirl, Finley sent Lucrece a lengthy account of these events. But there was no reply. Instead, he received a letter from Jedediah. “My Affectionately-Beloved Son,” it began. “My heart is in pain and deeply sorrowful, while I announce to you the sudden and unexpected death of your dear and deservedly-loved wife.”

Just twenty-five years old, Lucrece had died in New Haven three weeks after giving birth—only a few days after Finley’s visit. While painting Lafayette and hearing the House debates, he had been unaware of her passing. As Jedediah described it to him, Lucrece was about to take to her bed in the late afternoon, still convalescing from her delivery. She spoke cheerfully of before long joining Finley in New York. Stepping into bed, she struggled momentarily then fell back on her pillow: “her eyes were immediately fixed, the paleness of death overspread her countenance, and in five minutes more, without the slightest motion, her mortal life terminated.” All attempts to revive her failed. She apparently suffered a heart attack, what Jedediah called an “affection of the heart.”

Finley received the agonizing news too late to return for Lucrece’s funeral, which was held without him. But on the long slow stagecoach trip back to New Haven he paused in Baltimore to observe the Sabbath, and sent a letter to his parents: “Oh, is it possible—is it possible? shall I never see my dear wife again? … I fear I shall sink under it.” Every day made evident to him another bond to Lucrece he had taken for granted, which now was all too plainly ruptured. “Oh, what a blow! I dare not give myself up to the full survey of its desolating effects.” His attachment had been strengthened, too, by her ardent affection for him, and by her piety. In her trunk he discovered a personal journal recording her arduous self-examination for grace and her delight in at last feeling qualified to take communion. He had guided her through the conversion process, their souls wrapped together. No wonder he now felt heartsick, empty, “as if my very heart itself had been torn from me.”

And what would become of his children, “one of the darkest points in my future”? He left young Charles and his infant son in New Haven with his parents and Nancy Shepherd. He took Susan to live with him in New York, where the family with whom he boarded looked after her. Perhaps with some thought of also moving the boys to New York, he rented a three-story house on Canal Street, planning to let part of it to a couple rent-free in exchange for cleaning, washing, and some cooking. But Susan felt homesick, cried, wanted to see her little brothers. After two months he brought her back to New Haven. Much as he wanted the children with him, it seemed impossible to manage. He sent money for their upkeep and often thought of paying them a short visit, “but dare not think of it,” he said.

As he tried to get back to his painting, Finley felt tired and preoccupied, “ready almost to give up.” Once he got going, however, he threw himself into the work relentlessly. Sitting before his easel all week from seven in the morning until past midnight, by the Sabbath he felt “exceedingly nervous,” he said, “so that my whole body and limbs would shake.” Lafayette had sent him a sympathizing note on Lucrece’s death, promising to finish the large portrait they had begun in Washington. The general came to New York in July, after laying the cornerstone of a fiftieth-anniversary Bunker’s Hill monument in Boston, before a throng of forty thousand. The many demands on his time, however, allowed Finley no more than a “few casual glimpses” of him before his return to France.

Although still uncompleted, the prestigious commission brought Finley other important orders for portraits. During the winter and spring of 1825–26—“pumping hard,” he said—he created several memorable images of distinguished contemporaries, including the Knickerbocker poet-journalist William Cullen Bryant and the popular governor DeWitt Clinton, chief sponsor of the just completed 350-mile-long Erie Canal. The carefully painted pictures have not only historical value but also a fascinating presence—of vulnerable sensitivity in Bryant, in Clinton of bullnecked combativeness.

Finley’s commission also brought him election as an Associate in the American Academy of the Fine Arts. The rank entitled him to participate in the Academy’s annual exhibitions and to enter its gallery free of charge. This relatively minor bit of recognition may not have provided much relief from his sorrow. “There are times,” he wrote, “when I realize her loss with as much intensity as ever.” But his election to the Academy now figured in earning him a unique place in the history of American art.

Like Finley’s ill-fated Charleston Academy, the American Academy had mostly languished since its founding in 1802, installed for the last decade behind City Hall in a converted almshouse. The idea of an academy devoted to the discussion and teaching of art had been alive in Europe since at least the sixteenth century. But the wealthy New Yorkers who founded the American Academy and owned its property had little interest in training practicing painters and sculptors. Rather, they sought to bring refinement to America by cultivating public interest in the arts, at the same time keeping alive their upper-class values. To that end they imported and exhibited antique casts, copies of European masterpieces, works by contemporary European artists. Thirty-two oil-on-paper sketches of the ruins of Herculaneum by Piranesi had been donated by the Academy’s first Honorary Member, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Samuel F. B. Morse, William Cullen Bryant (National Academy of Design)

The Academy’s current president was the distinguished history painter and Revolutionary War veteran, Colonel John Trumbull. One of very few American artists with an international reputation, he alone held together whatever art community existed in New York at the time. He had studied with Benjamin West in London and had personally known many of the Founding Fathers, many of whose faces he had taken from life in depicting such events as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He got along easily with the directors of the Academy—bankers, merchants, physicians, and other New York gentlemen of taste and fortune.

Samuel F. B. Morse, DeWitt Clinton (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Trumbull had liabilities as well, including a scandalously hard-drinking wife and an illegitimate son who had joined the British army. Nearing seventy, his energy waning, he was quick to sense and resent disrespect. And unlike Reynolds and West at the Royal Academy, he had no interest in developing art theory or nurturing young artists. “I would sooner,” he remarked, “make a Son of mine a Butcher or a shoemaker.”

In October, about six months after his election as an Associate, Finley was given a petition to the Academy drafted by some disgruntled students. The Academy offered no art classes, but during certain morning hours it allowed students to draw from its collection of antique casts, which included models of the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön purchased from the Louvre. The students who composed the petition had gone to the Academy one morning to draw, but found the door locked. The doorkeeper reportedly said he would open up when it suited him. Trumbull reportedly approved and commented, haughtily: “These young men should remember that the gentlemen have gone to a great expense in importing casts, and that they [the students] have no property in them…. beggars are not to be choosers.” The students’ petition asked the Academy to honor the privileges it had extended.

The document seems to have come to Finley with the request that he present it to the Academy. Stress “seems”: the several surviving accounts of the events that followed over the next three months are fragmentary, biased, and contradictory. But Finley’s increasing prominence and his standing as an Associate did make him a likely choice to present the petition. And after his abortive attempts to found an academy in Charleston and New Haven, it did occur to him when settling in New York that he might replace the aging Trumbull as head of the American Academy. Nor had he forgotten the resolution he entered in his journal when he left England ten years before: “On returning to America, let my endeavor be to rouse the feeling for works of art.”

Finley seems to have invited some Academy students to his Canal Street house to discuss the situation, with two results. The petition was dropped, and a Drawing Association was formed, headed by Finley. The members proposed to meet three evenings a week to draw together from casts, for mutual improvement. Enrolling such well-known New York painters as Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole, the club presented itself not as a competitor to the American Academy but an extension of it. Trumbull said he was “delighted.” He lent the artists some of the Academy’s casts, and arranged for them to use rooms at the New-York Historical Society, of which he was vice president.

Finley was pleased by the drawing club’s atmosphere of cooperation, especially as the members attributed it to him. “There is a spirit of harmony among the artists,” he said, “which never before existed in New York.” He considered solidarity among American artists essential for gaining them a voice in American life and challenging the cultural authority of monied patricians. Its membership trebling within weeks, the Drawing Association asked Trumbull for the use of larger quarters. He again agreed. But, not unreasonably, he began to sense a threat to his Academy.

Finley seems not to have been present when, around mid-December, Trumbull turned up at an evening get-together of the club. With the artists drawing from casts he had loaned them, in a room he had provided for them, he apparently wished to reassert the sway of the American Academy over them. As one of the artists, Thomas S. Cummings, recorded the event, Trumbull “took possession” of Finley’s seat. Looking around “authoritatively,” he asked all the artists present to sign the Academy’s student register, which he had brought with him. “The Colonel waited some time,” Cummings wrote, “but receiving neither compliance nor attention, left in the same stately manner he had entered; remarking aloud, that he had left the book for our signatures.” After Trumbull left, the artists gathered in groups to discuss the confrontation. They agreed that they were not his students, and unanimously refused to sign.

Finley led an effort to restore unity between the drawing club and the Academy. Aware that the mutinous artists wanted to remain in the Academy but have a greater say in its management, he discussed the standoff amicably with Trumbull over dinner. A few weeks later, he chaired a three-man committee from the Drawing Association that conferred with a comparable Academy committee. He reported back to the club that the meeting produced a valuable agreement: in the upcoming vote for a new board of directors, Trumbull’s Academy would elect a slate of six artists chosen by the Association—“ensuring us,” he said, “that share in the direction which we desire.”

Finley’s peacemaking, however, may only have touched off total war. The thirty-five Academy members who voted for their new board, on January 10, did elect six artists, but not the six chosen by the drawing club. Surviving explanations of this result differ irreconcilably. In one, Finley misunderstood the committee agreement and thus misrepresented it to the Association. In another, the Academy members betrayed the agreement, voting as if it did not exist. For whatever reason, Trumbull’s Academy chose for its board of directors only two of the artists selected by the club—A. B. Durand, and Finley himself. Both resigned.

Four days after the election, Finley addressed a memorable meeting of the Drawing Association. “We have this evening assumed a new attitude in the community,” he told the members; “our negotiations with the Academy are at an end.” He formally proposed that for the sake of elevating the condition of the arts in the United States they form a new institution, modeled on the Royal Academy. It would differ from Trumbull’s conservative Academy in being geared not to the interests of rich patrons and collectors but of artists, managed not by physicians or politicians but by artists—an institution by artists, for artists: “every profession in society knows best what measures are necessary for its own improvement.”

On January 19, 1826, Finley called to order at his house the first meeting of the National Academy of the Arts of Design. In its earliest form the National Academy consisted of four divisions, each supervised by a prominent artist: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Engraving. At the Antique School, about forty students, male and female, could draw from casts and compete for prizes of gold or silver palettes. Plans were soon made for an annual exhibition, a library of standard European works on art, and weekly lectures on such matters as anatomy and perspective.

The members elected Finley as their first president. Committed to painting full-time, he debated with himself whether to accept. He had long hoped to see in America a republican version of the Royal Academy—an American school for training American artists. And New York City was the ideal home for it, “the capital of the country, and here the artists should have their rallying point.” But with nothing less than “professional freedom” at stake, the president would bear heavy responsibilities, “more than a balance for the honor.” Seeking advice from above, as always, he prayerfully decided that he had a calling to the office: “the cause of the Artists seems under Providence to be in some degree confided to me, and I cannot shrink from the cares and troubles.” He agreed to serve as president—as he would every year for the next fifteen years.

By his essential part in creating the National Academy of Design, Finley did much to give American artists a sense of identity and lay a foundation for the modern New York art world. Over the next decade, some four hundred students received instruction at the Academy, which over the next half century remained the most influential art institution in America. Thomas Cole, Rembrandt Peale, William Dunlap, the architect Ithiel Town, and the other original members were succeeded by such distinguished National Academicians and Associates as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

The idea of lecturing on art had been with Finley since the time of his seasons in Charleston. Amid the wrangling that brought the N.A.D. into being he tried putting together four lectures. Reading widely and taking copious notes, he found the writing difficult and often thought of postponing the talks, or giving only two. But a desire to enlarge his growing reputation kept him at it: “if well done, they place me alone among the artists; I being the only one who has yet written a course of lectures in our country.”

Finley delivered his lectures over four nights in March and April 1826, in the chapel of Columbia College. They were sponsored by the New York Athenaeum—one offering in a series of talks by writers, philosophers, and scientists meant to enrich the city’s intellectual life. As literature Finley’s lectures are undistinguished. He borrowed freely from the many books he consulted, especially Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses, and strained to achieve a highfalutin tone. His first lecture, for instance, opens with a convoluted by-your-leave:

If those of your Lecturers who have been in the habit of addressing a popular assembly have felt a diffidence in appearing before so refined and intelligent an audience as I now have the honor to address and have claimed your indulgence, well may I feel a diffidence in submitting to you the composition of one more accustomed to address the public through the eye than through the ear, and consequently inexperienced in the facilities of arranging a written discourse.

Despite the wearisome formality, in the history of American art Finley’s lectures have the primacy of Edgar Allan Poe’s attempts, a few years later, to educate the American public in sophisticated standards for judging literary works.

Finley took as his main subject the affinity of painting to poetry, music, and landscape gardening, and their mutual dependence on the eternal principles active in Nature. He began, that is, with the ancient doctrine of the sister arts, but gave it an important twist: “the other Arts of the Imagination have hitherto been more cultivated in our country than Painting, and I presumed that the latter would be better understood by showing it in its connexion with the former.” His lectures were a simile, comparing the unknown to the known. Unlike a European audience, his listeners in New York had had little experience of serious painting. So to suggest its features he described congruent features of carefully wrought poetry, music, and landscape gardening, kindred arts more familiar to them.

In his first lecture, Finley distinguished the Practical Arts from the Fine Arts, the aim of the latter being to please the Imagination. His second lecture set out a theology of the Fine Arts. Created in the likeness of God, humanity desires to create; not being God, however, it cannot create out of nothing. The artist can only combine into new forms the existent God-given “principles” of nature, such as Motion, Order, Unity, and Mystery. Lecture Three demonstrated how painting’s sister arts use these principles to stir the Imagination. To reproduce natural effects of Motion, for instance, poets divide their language into metrical feet, musicians vary their tempi, landscape gardeners build brooks. In his final lecture Finley showed how painters too reproduce these familiar principles. Much as poets render natural forces through words, painters use lines, chiaroscuro, and color. The painter imitates Motion, for instance, by arrangements of color that move the viewer’s eye from point to point, or imitates Mystery by contrasts of light and dark. To illustrate, Finley held up and analyzed engravings of works by Titian, Rubens, Poussin, and other masters.

While speaking of general principles and old masters, Finley obviously had his own situation in mind. By refining American taste he hoped at the same time to create American buyers for the sort of pictures he wanted to paint, to overcome the indifference that had doomed his House of Representatives: “what use is it for the Artist to cultivate his own taste,” he asked his audience, “if those around him are incapable of feeling and appreciating the beauties which are spread before them.” He generally excluded the lower classes from the future ranks of the tasteful, confining his instruction to persons such as he considered his listeners to represent, “the intelligent and well educated in all countries and ages.” In their disdain for the emergent democratic masses, at least, his lectures offered nothing to offend the patrician founders of Trumbull’s American Academy.

According to Finley, each lecture drew a larger audience than the one before, his final lecture attracting the largest audience ever assembled in the Columbia chapel. He found not much time to enjoy his success, being obliged to prepare for another important event—the first exhibition by his National Academy of Design. A private opening was held on May 13, attended by Governor Clinton, the mayor of New York City, the Columbia College faculty, and other dignitaries. Next day the Academy members welcomed in the public—the artists identifying themselves by wearing white ribbons in their buttonholes, shaped into roses. Housed on the second floor of an ordinary dwelling on lower Broadway, the exhibit stayed open through June from nine in the morning to ten at night (lit by six gas lamps). Finley contributed three portraits; Trumbull himself sent a painting, as did Allston. All of the 180 oils, watercolors, engravings, and architectural drawings were new works by living artists, not previously displayed in public—an important innovation that led Thomas Cummings to call the N.A.D. show “the first solely artistic effort at Exhibition in the country.”

Probably only a day or two before or after the opening, Finley received a letter from his mother saying she had never seen Jedediah so feeble. He would be glad to see his sons, “if they can break away from their numerous cares.” Although often tempted to drop everything for a “short look” at his children, Finley had not visited New Haven for three months. A few days after receiving his mother’s letter, he received another from her, with the news that Jedediah was now unable to get out of bed without help: “He will be much gratified to see his dear children when they can conveniently come.” Finley replied that he was tied down, “painting away with all my might,” the city Corporation pressing him to finish his full-length portrait of Lafayette: “Nothing but the most imperious necessity prevents my coming immediately…. like our good father, all his sons seem destined for most busy stations in society … not for themselves alone, but for the public benefit.”

With the news early in June that his father had only a few days to live, Finley tore himself from business. He seems to have arrived in New Haven on June 9, only hours before Jedediah’s death. He found several young people gathered around his father’s bed. Sinking but tranquil, Jedediah said to them: “You see how a Christian can die, without fear.” Calvinist tradition cherished such demonstrations of how a Christian faced death, especially a minister. Finley joined in by catechizing his father. What was his mental state? “I have a hope full of immortality.” Did he at all doubt the truth of the doctrines he had long preached? “O no; I believe them to be the doctrines of the Bible.”

At one moment Jedediah shuddered, laboring for breath. Finley assured him that the Savior would not desert him in his hour of trial. “O no, he gives me already a foretaste of heaven,” Jedediah replied earnestly; “I have not strength to express the joy I feel.” In what Finley believed was an allusion to Lucrece, his father added: “I feel no gloom about the grave knowing … in whose company I am to rise.” A few minutes later, with Richard and Sidney still en route from New York, Finley closed his father’s eyes. Next day he recalled Psalms 37: 37, “Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace.”

But Jedediah’s end had not been so peaceful. He died convinced that his labors had gone unappreciated. He had prepared a 500-page report on his tour of Indian villages, but the government refused to publish it—“to mortify & wound your feelings,” Elizabeth said. Lamenting the loss of his ministry, his geographies no longer selling as well as before, he had had to mortgage his house and borrow to keep up appearances.

Jedediah’s will testified to the deepening financial failures of his last few years. To his three sons he left only $50 each. Noting that Finley had received his portion through his training in England, he gave the copyrights of his books to Richard and Sidney, requiring them to pay a third of the income to Elizabeth. The remainder of the estate went to her, but this amounted to less than nothing. At the time of his death Jedediah had $7000 but owed $14,000. As Elizabeth summed up her situation soon afterward, “At age 61 years I have three little motherless children to take care of besides three young men all without wives who have never yet been from under my care at home or abroad.”

Throughout Finley’s life, “Morse” had meant Jedediah, the “Father of American Geography.” But by his lectures and his activities as president of the National Academy, “Morse” was beginning to mean himself— New York City’s, perhaps the nation’s, chief spokesman for American art. Artists elsewhere noticed and sent congratulations. “The progress of your Academy has produced a sensation,” Thomas Sully wrote. The Philadelphia painter John Neagle hurrahed: American artists had at last shown themselves to be self-sufficient, “qualified to preside over and govern ‘An Academy of Arts’ without the adventitious & aristocratic influence of the MD’S, LLD’S or ASSES!” The news reached even London: “Morse,” said his old friend Charles Leslie, “seems to be a great man among them at New York.”

Finley’s completed Lafayette brought further notice and praise. The eight-by-five-foot canvas was displayed at the N.A.D.’s second show, held this time in the city’s best exhibition room, the skylighted upper floor of the handsome Arcade Bath building. The portrait depicts the thick-waisted sixty-eight-year-old general standing at the top of a flight of stairs. In his black coat and yellow pantaloons he looks baggy-eyed, a bit mournful, quintessentially Gallic. Several newspapers hailed the painting for accurate likeness, but it aims, rather, at symbolic representation. Finley explained some of the many symbolic touches: a glowing sunset sky, marking the glorious evening of Lafayette’s life; a heliotrope facing the sun, alluding to his unswerving consistency; an empty pedestal beside busts of Washington and Franklin, waiting to complete the national trinity by receiving a bust of the Marquis himself. Concerned more with the thought than the thing, Finley painted not so much Lafayette as the Idea of Lafayette—an authentic American hero who happened to be French.

Finley’s Lafayette did not please everyone. One reviewer wrote that he “might have made a much better picture of any thing or any body.” As Finley’s prominence more and more exposed him to public scrutiny, he won detractors as well as admirers. The New York Mirror put down a portrait he displayed in the third annual N.A.D. exhibition, for “the unskillful manner in which the colours have been laid on.” Another viewer derided Finley’s portrait of William Cullen Bryant as vapid, “too much like a common man—Mr. Morse never could have understood and felt his genius.” Still another critic sensed in Finley—correctly—pretensions to having attained rank in an aristocracy of talent. Much as Jedediah had styled himself “D.D.F.A.A.S.H.S.,” Finley now signed himself “P.N.A.,” President of the National Academy—as if, it was said, he wanted to make artists princes or knights.

Barely two years old, Finley’s Academy also came under attack, some of it intense. He had advised the members not to lash out at Trumbull’s American Academy, indignant though many felt over its past treatment of them. Further controversy, he said, would be expensive, and a distraction from their studies: “silence is undoubtedly the best defence.”

Samuel F. B. Morse, The Marquis de Lafayette (City of New York, Office of the Mayor)

Without intending to, however, Finley himself touched off a mean-spirited public battle between his organization and Trumbull’s. It began with a lengthy commencement address he delivered at the conclusion of the N.AD.’s first academic year, published with notes as a sixty-page pamphlet entitled Academies of Arts (1827). His arguments are too many and complex to be summarized briefly. But in essence he contended that from late-medieval Venice to the present, art academies had two features in common: instruction for students and governance by the artists themselves. Throughout their history, academies served especially to teach students to draw, accurate representation being the foundation for all the arts of design. But American students would face public insensitivity and ignorance, the country being as yet unable to appreciate genuine merit: “Bold pretension will be successful, while more retiring merit will be neglected, for it will not be understood.” And American patrons preferred buying supposed European masterworks—most of them fakes—to works by living American artists, a practice certain to “retard the progress of modern art.”

Finley’s pamphlet provoked a seventeen-page reply in the North American Review, New England’s most prestigious intellectual journal. The anonymous author was a Boston lawyer and amateur painter named Franklin Dexter. More sympathetic than the classicist Finley to new currents of Romantic thinking, he argued that when artists govern an academy they tend to establish a school, systematizing what should arise from the student’s observation of nature. By emphasizing accurate drawing, too, academies teach students to make dull copies of what happens to be before them, ignoring poetical conception. Dexter also countered Finley’s pessimistic picture of American taste. The enemy to national progress in the arts is not a snobbish preference for European works, but the utilitarian spirit of the present age: “Eloquence, poetry, painting, and sculpture—do not belong to such an age; they are already declining, and they must give way before the progress of popular education, science, and the useful arts.”

Finley published a thoughtful rebuttal to Dexter’s article. Writing for a New York newspaper, he argued among other things that the very progress of practical arts in America reflected a national energy that would at some future date also elevate painting and its sister arts: “Their place in the march of civilization is in the train of the useful arts, and these, their avant couriers, have long and eminently occupied a distinguished place in our country.” The elegant arts would someday thrive in practical America, he prophesied, because they need the atmosphere of a free government in which to breathe. America, “from its very freedom, is the natural habitation of these arts.”

Had it ended there, the well-mannered exchange between Finley and Dexter might be remembered as the country’s first substantial public debate on art, touching many issues of long-range importance to the arts in America. The Academy question having been opened for discussion however, others took it up. Under such pseudonyms as “A Patron,” “Middle Tint,” and “Joe Strickland” of “Memphremagog,” they turned out a score of pamphlets and newspaper articles that dragged into public view conflicting and often bitter accounts of how the National Academy of Design came to be.

One side attacked the breakaway artists as “seceders,” the other defended them as patriots, acting “as much from principle as our Republican Government.” Both sides grumbled about backstabbing and snakes in the grass, and spoke out for or against Finley or Trumbull personally. One side said Trumbull turned artists into sycophants, fawning on the rich in hopes of patronage; his exhibitions at the American Academy, showing the same pictures year after year, were a joke (“Have you seen the exhibition this year?” “No, I saw it last year”). Finley, the other side said, inflated himself “with the pompous title of President”; proceeds from exhibitions of the National Academy went to line his own pockets.

Becoming a storm center, Finley held still until the appearance of an article in the New York American by “A Lay Member.” The writer charged him with having published a series of inflammatory articles under the names “Boydell” and “Denon.” This duo had denounced Trumbull’s American Academy for among other things holding fraudulent elections, faltering under a load of debt, and being useless to the city’s artists. Insulted to be accused of hiding behind pseudonyms, Finley replied in the Evening Post,dismissing the charge as “entirely mistaken” and for the first time publicly laying out his own version of the founding of the N.A.D.

This “Exposé,” as Finley called it, enraged Trumbull. Answering back in the same newspaper he blasted Finley as a “wretched pettifogger,” damning his “gross perversion and suppression of truth.” It was Finley, he said, who had excited students at the American Academy to revolt, who had masterminded a plan to deprive the Academy of its charter of incorporation, rob it of its property. In any circumstances Trumbull was quick to take offense. But the violence of his response suggests that he may have been the “Lay Member” who sniffed out Finley behind “Boydell” and “Denon.” Invoking his advanced age and long service to the country, he told his readers that he felt duty-bound to speak plainly: “in the spirit of the olden time, I have called a Cat a Cat, and not a pretty pussy.”

Finley remained calm, at least before the public. Addressing Trumbull through the Evening Post, he said that he had “too much self-respect to spend many words in answering.” He would rest content with drawing a comparison: “The National Academy, sir, is a real Academy for the promotion of the Arts of Design…. The American Academy of Fine Arts, sir, is not an Academy.”

The controversy died down in the summer of 1828. But Finley did not forget the harsh words written against him. Later in the year an upstate newspaper editor asked him to review an exhibition at Trumbull’s Academy. He declined, explaining that he could give no lengthier appraisal than to comment that most of the pictures were junk—“execrable trash, the vile daubings of old-picture manufacturers, or the crude copies of students … But don’t say I gave it to you.”

Amid the public exhibitions and quarreling, Finley lived the drifting life of a homeless widower. He changed residences several times, moving from Canal Street to Cedar Street, Murray Street, Grand Street. With New York City becoming the country’s publishing center, he befriended Bryant, the poet Fitz-Greene Halleck, and other writers no less eager to establish a professional class of American authors than he to win respect for American artists. He joined James Fenimore Cooper’s literary society, the Bread and Cheese, and when it disbanded in 1829 joined its successor, the Sketch Club. The Club’s twenty-five members met weekly at one another’s quarters, in alphabetical rotation, the host providing sandwiches, mulled wine, hard-boiled eggs. Meetings were announced cabalistically in the daily press. “S.C.: S.F.B.M.” meant that Sketch Club members would gather that evening at Finley’s, as they did several times.

The atmosphere of the Club was mock-solemn. Members discussed the “evolvement of sardonic iced gas,” the propriety of “discumgarigamfrigation.” Finley fully entered the farcical fun. The club minutes record that he at one time or another made a motion that “whereas this is moving day, the Secretary be removed”; exhibited a new portrait from life of Oliver Cromwell; and offered a hanky to a leaking fellow club member, “which on examination turns out to be a modification of a mixture of purple and pea green—no go.” The host of each meeting selected an object or phrase for the members to illustrate in a poem or drawing. Revealingly perhaps, when the host suggested “The Emotions,” Finley chose to depict “Indignation.”

Finley had done some writing since his undergraduate days—poems, essays, scriptural exegeses, a few newspaper articles, a farce. Friendly now with the Knickerbocker literary lights, he became a part-time literary man himself. Writing anonymously in his brothers’ Observer, he assailed the Bowery Theater for presenting Madame Hutin, a scantily clad danseuse whose performances amounted to smut, “the public exposure of a naked female.” The articles made such a stir that he was invited to write the prospectus for a new daily newspaper that would not, as he said, “pander to the appetites of the depraved by enticing them to scenes of licentiousness”—a journal dedicated to the moral reform of New York City. He named the paper the Journal of Commerce and may even have managed it awhile before finding a permanent editor. He wrote poetry, too: a sonnet to Lafayette, who “freely brav’d our storms”; an insipid “Serenade,” about “magic notes/In visions heard.”

Finley also found time to edit the literary remains of a precocious Plattsburgh girl named Lucretia Davidson. She had died at the age of seventeen, leaving over three hundred poems in manuscript. He published the collection as Amir Khan, sending copies to Sir Walter Scott and Robert Southey. Lucretia Davidson’s name was of course resonant for him. The memories it stirred register in his description of her as an example of “exquisite beauty … perishing in its bloom.”

Finley thought often and tearfully of Lucrece. People he knew urged him to remarry and make a new home for his children, but he lacked the “shopping disposition,” he said; “I cannot look for a wife as I would for a pair of gloves.” In his most dejected moments he believed he had no prospect of ever marrying again, or having his family around him; other times it seemed at least not impossible.

Such a moment arrived in the fall of 1828, a few months after his newspaper squabble with John Trumbull. Traveling upstate to paint some commissioned portraits, he met a young woman named Catherine Pattison (or Patterson), the daughter of a Troy, New York, businessman. She seemed a “lovely, noble minded girl,” having the qualities of mind and heart that he sought. After much prayer he proposed to her. Not much more can be said about how their close relationship developed; relevant passages in his surviving correspondence have been deleted and entire letters lost or removed. What is known is that Catherine agreed to marry him, although apparently half his age—a schoolgirl in her teens and ill at ease in the world, “so different from other people,” she told him, “that I almost despair of ever being like the rest of the human family.”

But Catherine’s father strongly disapproved the match and forbade Finley to visit or communicate with her—“Nor would her father see me, or explain to me, or suffer me to personally explain to him.” He considered Finley unsuitable as a widower with children and, more so, as a painter. The second objection startled and angered Finley, given that he was also the son of The Geographer, a graduate of Yale, devoutly pious, and president of the National Academy: “Family, education, talents, habits, character, standing in society, all it seems are of no weight against the single fact that I am an artist.”

Although tempted to defy Catherine’s father, Finley did nothing. His own principles condemned any interference with a child’s duty to obey parental commands. And he believed that Catherine’s father would repay disobedience by disinheriting her—“on my own account it would not weigh a straw, yet I feel it to be too great a sacrifice on her part to risk.” But replacing Catherine would not be easy. The ending of the affair left him devastated: “since the death of my dear Lucretia I have had nothing occur so overwhelming.”

The end of the affair had another powerful effect. It quickened Finley’s long-unfulfilled desire to visit Paris and Rome. He had planned to take Catherine, but decided to go himself—not for sightseeing but to complete his artistic education. American painters had looked longingly toward Italy since Benjamin West’s pioneering trip there in 1760. Cut off from the Continent during the Napoleonic Wars, they were once again making their way to Italy, where they could live cheaply while painting, and see the masterworks they knew only from casts and engravings. To Finley, his present miserable moment seemed the right time. Now in his late thirties, he would soon be too old to profit much from further study. And Europe promised renewal, another beginning in a lifetime of fresh starts.

Finley tried to raise enough money to cover the cost of his visit. The Journal of Commerce invited him to serve as a correspondent, travel articles being popular in the American press. But he thought the effort would too much reduce his painting time. He solicited subscriptions for a large picture that he proposed to paint while abroad. It would remain the subscribers’ property until its exhibition in America paid back the money they advanced, with interest. Considering the public’s indifference to exhibitions of his House of Representatives, the idea seems starry-eyed, and in any case failed to inspire patronage. He tried the government. Congress was thinking of hiring American artists to complete the group of paintings it had authorized years earlier, pictures of American history to be hung under the huge dome of the United States Capitol. Four 12-by-18-foot canvases had been commissioned in 1817 from John Trumbull, who spent eight years producing them.

Securing a commission for one of the Capitol pictures represented to Finley far more than a means of getting to Europe. In the work’s subject, scale, and placement he saw the realization of his highest ambitions as a history painter. He wrote to Senator Robert Young Hayne, whom he had painted in Charleston, frankly recommending that Congress hire him. “I have been preparing myself in all my studies for many years for such a work,” he said, “and am burning for an opportunity to execute one work at least which shall reflect credit on myself, and I hope on my country.” Announcing that he was about to leave for Europe, he asked to be given the commission now, so that through his advanced study abroad he might perfect his ability to fulfill it.

No government commission arrived. But Finley did manage to finance his trip, by lining up orders to paint landscapes, portraits, or copies of works by Poussin, Tintoretto, and other European masters. In all, he acquired pledges for some thirty pictures amounting to about $3000, enough to support him modestly in France and Italy for three years.

Before departing in November, Finley got a letter of introduction from Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, and another to the American minister to France. Settling his affairs, he resigned as president of the National Academy. But the Council persuaded him to retain the office and allow the vice president, Henry Inman, to perform its duties in his absence. And he had to arrange for the care of his children—Susan, Charles, James. Their material well-being seemed assured. Lucrece’s father, their grandfather, had recently received a large inheritance and promised to provide for them.

As to leaving his children for three years, Finley reasoned that all his artistic labors aimed at having a home for them. Since his study abroad would ultimately be to their benefit he need not feel guilty: “I think no one will accuse me of neglecting them.” But he had not often visited the children during his four years in New York, either. Instead he sent them instructions indistinguishable from those his parents had sent him many years before, bartering love for obedience: “tell Susan if she loves her Papa, she will gratify him by behaving so that he shall hear good accounts of her.” The conflict between domestic life and an artistic career was of course nothing new to Finley. As a student at the Royal Academy he had painted a Judgment of Jupiter, showing a young woman in flight from her lover Apollo, god of inspiration, to her mortal husband. For himself he had long ago chosen Apollo, finding some comfort and warrant in religious scruples about the “danger of idolizing the family circle.”

Following the deaths of Lucrece and Jedediah, Finley’s children had been looked after in New Haven by Elizabeth Morse and nurse Nancy Shepherd. But Elizabeth herself had died while he was caught up in preparing the third annual N.A.D. exhibition. At first she had shown symptoms of dropsy. When he learned that her legs were swollen he sent a letter of sympathy—and news that the exhibition was thronged, “the first people in the city, ladies and gentlemen.” Two weeks later he wrote again. “I am so situated as to be unable to leave the city without great detriment to my business,” he said. “I will come, however, if, on the whole, you think it best.” Whether he then returned to New Haven is unknown, but ten days later Elizabeth was dead, at the age of sixty-two. She had been a difficult woman, a difficult mother—embittered by the loss of eight children, sharp-tongued, quick to find fault. Still, her death left him counting the toll of the last few years: “my wife, my father, my mother all in their graves.”

After Elizabeth’s death, Finley’s children were placed with various caretakers, with whom they would remain during his absence. Charles, seven and a half years old, was boarded with a clergyman near New Haven. James, two years younger, early on developed some serious illness: “I can’t but hope he will yet be a well child,” Finley said; “he seems to have an unusual share of troubles.” James was moved around, boarded awhile upstate with Richard Morse’s new bride and her aunt, then taken by Sidney Morse to Brooklyn and put in an “Infant School,” then reunited with his brother Charles at the home of the clergyman. Finley placed ten-year-old Susan with Lucrece’s sister and her husband in Concord, New Hampshire—“without expence to me,” he noted.

The couple considered adopting Susan, not out of affection for her, it seems clear, but out of respect to the memory of Lucrece. Lucrece’s sister complained to Finley that the girl had been improperly reared, too much given her own way: “when I commanded her to do any thing, she would not be very ready to mind.” She applied herself to breaking Susan’s bad habits by denying her walks or visits and sending her to a “man’s school,” in which almost all the students were boys. “If there is any thing that is painful to me,” she said, “it is to see a child, made completely wretched by selfishness and indulgence.” Susan keenly felt her separation from Finley and wrote to him imploringly from New Hampshire: “I hope you will not go to Europe my dear Father. You must come and see me.” At the bottom of the letter she added: “When this you see/Remember me.”

Finley was not deaf to such cries, nor indifferent to the uprooting of his children. But long practice in a self-pitying fatalism helped him justify his failure to relieve their situation: “my children scattered, separated from each other, and from me, and I alone,” he wrote; “I feel this trial most severely, it is a dark dispensation but I know it is right, for He has done it who cannot err.” Yet however much he trusted the design of Providence, when just about to leave his country he sank into depression, “great depression,” he said, “from which some have told me they feared for my health and even reason.”

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