SUSAN STAMBERG, host: On view as of today this holiday weekend, the National Gallery of Art is exhibiting a painting called "The Gallery of the Louvre" - a work that one of the best-known Americans began creating in 1831 in Paris. That artist is most familiar as the inventor of the telegraph, and the code used to send telegraph messages. But Samuel Morse started off as a painter, and his time in Paris developing his skills is one of the subjects in David McCullough's new book "The Greater Journey" about Americans in Paris in the 19th century. David McCullough joins us from WBUR in Boston. Good morning to you.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Good morning.
STAMBERG: I want to talk about this amazing work. It's huge - it's about six-by-nine feet. Can you describe it please?
MCCULLOUGH: Morse decided that he was going to do the interior of the Louvre to show the great masterpieces in the collection for his countrymen. There were no museums here as yet in the 1830s and no color reproductions of paintings. So, he was going to bring the culture of Europe, mainly the renaissance Italian masterpieces in the Louvre collection back to the United States for the benefit of his countrymen.
STAMBERG: Our listeners can see the painting at NPR.org. But what he's done is he's painted a large room - it looks as if the walls are red - and then hanging on them 38 works of art. Did he find a single gallery and paint what was on the walls of that gallery?
MCCULLOUGH: No. He had to go through the entire collection of the Louvre, which was enormous but well over 1,000 paintings and pick out those masterpieces, which he thought merited the attention of his countrymen back home. So, it's his pick of the Louvre masterpieces and it includes most of the major Italian renaissance painters - Titian and Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt, to be sure, and others. He had to not only reduce them down to miniature size in the painting but he had to capture the essence of their style and their genius.
STAMBERG: So, it becomes like a little textbook of art history. And there at the bottom on one of the walls, this little Mona Lisa. He's gone to the trouble of painting her too.
MCCULLOUGH: It was an extremely ambitious undertaking because many of the paintings he was copying were on very high up. And so he had to build a moveable platform or scaffold that he wheeled about through the galleries of the Louvre to reach his subjects. And he and the moveable scaffold became a tourist attraction onto themselves. And his ambition was very great. And he felt strongly that this painting would make the mark, would make him known everywhere. And in a way, it did. It's certainly his masterpiece.
STAMBERG: Was this a tradition - artists reproducing treasures in museums?
MCCULLOUGH: Well, it had begun earlier in the 17th century and was done particularly for people who, very wealthy people, who had huge and very valuable private collections. But no American had ever attempted anything like this. And it wasn't just something that Morse had never attempted - no American had attempted.
STAMBERG: You can go to French museums to this day and see artists and would-be artists sitting there with their easels and their paints trying to reproduce...
MCCULLOUGH: Yes, indeed.
STAMBERG: ...what's hanging on the wall.
STAMBERG: So, it's a longstanding tradition too.
MCCULLOUGH: It is. And one of the things that impressed Americans - Winslow Homer did an illustration, magazine illustration, about how many of the students were women and that art was not closed off to women in France. And that was considered to be quite a radical and welcome change. And, of course, Morse is showing that very clearly in this painting.
STAMBERG: I love the idea of him creating his own gallery in the course of making this work. It must have taken him weeks to go through the Louvre and make his choices of these final...
MCCULLOUGH: Oh, yes, just going through and deciding what he was not going to include. And he didn't include any of the French Romantics of the time, for example, no Delacroix, no Gericault. He wasn't interested in that. He was interested in the classics from the earlier time, the renaissance time, and principally the Italian painters.
STAMBERG: And what was his work ethic there? Did he come and go? Was he a Sunday painter?
MCCULLOUGH: No. He came every day the museum was open. As soon as it opened, he was in there at work and he stayed as long as they would allow him. He was a determined man. And he had hoped that this painting was going to make his career but also to get him out of debt. And he was going to put it on exhibit and charge an admission fee. Well, it didn't work. The crowds did not come. And then he sold it for much, much less than he ever anticipated. But years later, in the 1980s, that painting sold for over $3 million, which was the largest sum ever paid - until then - the largest sum ever paid for an American work of art.
STAMBERG: Oh my goodness. Samuel Morse worked on this from 1831 to '33 and somewhere in there he began dreaming up the notion of the telegraph?
MCCULLOUGH: Yes. He came back home from Paris with in effect two treasures. One was the painting and the other was an idea he had because of something he'd seen while in France, and the idea was for the telegraph. And when he got home, he perfected the telegraph and then he went back some years later to try and secure a French patent for the telegraph. And while he was there, he had met Daguerre, who had invented photography, or the daguerreotype, as it was then known. And with Daguerre's permission brought photography back to the United States. So, he came home from Paris with three major contributions: the painting, the telegraph and the photography.
STAMBERG: David McCullough, talking about Samuel Morse's painting the Gallery of the Louvre, on view as of today at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, or at NPR.org - but the original better. Mr. McCullough tells the story of Morse and other Americans in 19th century Paris in his new book, "The Greater Journey." Thanks so much.
MCCULLOUGH: Well, thank you very much, Susan.