The Atlantic Souvenir, a petite, early 19th century gift book, published in Philadelphia between 1825 and 1832, contains poems, stories and engravings of paintings for the enjoyment of its readers. Engraving, lithography, and etching were part of the illustrative press, and performed the crucial cultural function of sharing works of art with the public at large. Skillful engravers, capable of transferring the artist’s efforts to another medium, were highly prized. Few engravers, however, are today as recognized as the painters they served. The Wife, published as the front piece in the Atlantic Souvenir of 1830, is the exception. Engraved by Asher B. Durand after a painting by Samuel F. B. Morse, it’s existence reveals one of the most salient facts of life: what is, need not be what becomes.
Samuel F. B. Morse, son of a prominent minister, attended Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and, from there, moved onto Yale to study philosophy, mathematics and equine science. He was truly brilliant, but after graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1810, Morse rejected the thrust of his education to pursue the life of a painter. Studying in Europe for three years, Morse gained enough experience to receive, upon his return, commissions painting portraits and historical subjects. His life, though, was not without trouble. A precipitous drop in sales during the panic of 1819 almost sunk his chosen profession, but it was the death of his first wife in 1825 that disheartened him most. Persistence, and no small amount of talent, brought him back to professional health. By 1830, when the engraving of The Wife appeared in The Atlantic Souvenir, Americans would recognize Morse as an artist of distinction.
Asher B. Durand, five years younger than Morse, came from no such privilege. The eighth of eleven children born to a watchmaker in Maplewood, New Jersey, Durand became apprentice to an engraver at the age of sixteen. The young man showed such skill and promise, the firm made him a partner within ten years. In 1823, the painter John Trumbull, 40 years older than Durand, hoping to capitalize on America’s growing pride as a nation, selected Durand to engrave his masterpiece, The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, July 4th, 1776. The resulting print earned Trumbull high praise and became enormously popular – a copy hangs in the White House today – while Asher B. Durand received welcome attention from painters desiring the services of a gifted engraver. By 1830, when The Wife appeared in The Atlantic Souvenir, Durand’s reputation as one of America’s most skilled engravers was secure.
And here is where our consideration of this little print informs our understanding of the path of life. In 1830, Asher B. Durand, who long desired to be the painter, rather than the engraver, began to pick up the brush and explore the world of oil and canvas. Concurrently, Samuel F. B. Morse, still mourning the loss of his wife and carrying an aching frustration that he, while away from home on business, had not heard of her illness in time to be with her when she died, left for Europe. Morse hoped an extended sojourn would provide some inner healing and ended up staying for two years.
On the 1832 return voyage to America, Morse witnessed the electromagnetic experiments of a fellow traveler, Charles Jackson, of Boston, and had an idea. While continuing to paint, Morse conducted several experiments leading to the development of a single wire telegraph, which he began promoting through a series of dot and dash communications. Interest in the electromagnetic device was strong, consuming more and more of Morse’s time. Marketing and promotion soon required travel. Within a few years, the telegraph, and the code that bears his name, found application around the world. This is how we best remember Samuel F. B. Morse.
While Morse experimented with electromagnets, Asher B. Durand, the successful engraver turned painter, continued to hone his new craft. Within a decade, Durand’s paintings of the American landscape attracted the attention of the artist Thomas Cole. Together they found what some consider to be America’s first native artistic movement: the Hudson River School. In 2005, Durand’s 1849 painting Kindred Spirits, depicting Cole and the poet William Cullen Bryant, sold at Sothebys for a purported $35,000,000, though the actual price might have been much more. Today, we best remember Durand as one of 19th century America’s most gifted and insightful painters.
So, what does this teach us about the goals we set and the aspirations we hold so dear? Work hard, challenge your mind, and be open to a future yet unknown.