“The Palm of Painting”

As we move forward through early Colonial America towards the Federal Period, there is a powerful transition that is developing as settlers no longer are exclusively focused on survival issues.  Prosperity within the colonies allows and enables the settlers to strive for luxury possessions of quality.  The hard work ethic will remain, even to the present day, but settlers now wanted something to boast of their levels of accomplishment within their flourishing communities.  Samuel F. B. Morse, an American painter and inventor, made the following statement in an 1814 letter:  “It is really a pleasant consideration that the palm of painting still rests in America, and is, in all probability, destined to remain with us.”

What do you think Morse, co-inventor of Morse code for wired-communications, meant by the phrase “the palm of painting”?  Your thoughts on the transition of American art from Colonial to late Colonial/early Federal period as referenced by Morse and found in the two images below by Emanuel Leutze, German-born American Historical Painter?

Emanuel Leutze, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851

Emanuel Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, 1860

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

10 Comments

10 thoughts on ““The Palm of Painting””

  1. Samuel Morse was not only an inventor, but a painter who was noted to be one of the many great innovators that made America what it is today. Even though he was a little late in his development of the first telegraph, he did develop his “Morse code” and eventually received a patent which enabled him to build wires all across the United States. For many years though, America was behind Europe in the arts, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that American art was coming into its own. After independence from Britain, Americans had grown new attitudes and ideas through new and beautiful art, design, and architecture. It is obvious, as seen in Emanuel Leutze’s paintings from 1851 to 1860, to see this transition from Colonial manifest into early Federal as many artists liked to showed their American pride through their work. In this particular statement by Morse, he also conveys a sense of pride and rejoice in this new movement to bring new influences and undiscovered styles inspired by a freshened knowledge to the creative arts.

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  2. The “palm of painting” is a somewhat enigmatic statement. It needs more context to fully express its intended meaning. However, based on what we’ve learned, I’d guess that Morse was speaking of America holding a more authentic, and down-to-earth style. Rather than aspiring for prestige or “perfection” and heavily stylized painting, American painting tradition will be grounded in the real lives of the American people, and show the streak of independence and work ethic.
    This can be seen in the difference between the 1851 painting by Leutze and the 1860. The first one is still in the European tradition of stylized heroism of hierarchy and breeding, an unrealistic painting showing nobility. The 1860 one shows painting in American coming into it’s own identity and culture. It shows a distinctly American landscape and situation, and emphasizes hard work.

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  3. I think what Morse meant by his quote, ““It is really a pleasant consideration that the palm of painting still rests in America, and is, in all probability, destined to remain with us.” is that America is at the center of painting. By using the word “palm” it immediately paints the picture of a human hand. The palm is the center of the hand, it is necessary to hand, all other fingers are attached to the palm. Fingers stem from the hand. He could also mean that America “holds” painting. As American transitioned into from the colonial to the federal era artists began to paint scenes and landscapes rather than just portraits of the upper class. In both of Emanuel Leutze’s paintings there is a sense of pride for the new nation. The way he has painted these scenes is very romantic and dramatic. In both paintings the figures are seen looking to the West, in the bottom one of the main subjects is actually pointing West. They both show beautiful and idealized landscapes of America as well as showing interest in what lies in the unknown western frontier. Artists at this time were interested in what else their home had to offer and depicted that in their paintings.

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  4. When you hold something in your hand, you control it. You can manipulate it and change it under your will. I think that Morse had these ideas in mind when he wrote that phrase. He recognized that America had that kind of power in the early 19th century. The country was still being built and was under the constant scrutiny of other nations to see whether or not it would succeed. It therefore had power since other places where looking towards it to see what steps it would take. Especially when it came to art, America had many options and directions to take. It instead decided to create its own.
    The transition can be seen in the way the drama has lessened between the first and second image. The first is very heavy and dark and emotional while the latter, having the same heroism, is painted all-over with pastel colors which gives it an optimistic and more light-hearted feeling.

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  5. “The palm of Painting” could mean a lot of things. But in speculation, I think it meant that art would always play a big role in America. Both of these paintings have an influential meaning and a message of the masses, I think Samuel Morse thought that all decisions and probably schools of thought in America would stem from (directly or indirectly) from visual imagery. Moving to a new period where survival wasn’t necessary art had the freedom to become something new, with a new society, art had no preconditions that maybe thousand year old cities in Europe might have had. Art becomes a tool of influence and communication of American generations. We can still see how visual imagery affects our way of seen the things around us and how we approach life because of it. Today political cartoons are HUGE and are constantly and subconsciously forming ideals, stances and positions about the world we live in. Whether we acknowledge it or not, art it almost the roots where many beliefs stem from and I truly believe that maybe that is what Morse meant. When I read that quote,( although context is limited) I think of the palm of the hand, where all fingers converge and root from.

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  6. When I first read this statement, I immediately pictured a hand, palm open, grasping something in its complete control. This is the way I interpreted Morse’s statement: that American artists were beginning to really master the art of painting, as well as the art of successfully telling stories/conveying emotion through painting. When something is in the palm of your hand, you control it completely. Alternatively, when a palm rests on something, its covers it – weighs heavily on it. I believe, in the same way, this is what the art of painting did to American artists. It rested on them – almost like a mandate, a command, an imperative path to follow. I believe American artists were following the mandate to paint, and learning to control and master it as they got better.

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  7. When I first read this statement, I immediately pictured a hand, palm open, grasping something in its complete control. This is the way I interpreted Morse’s statement: that American artists were beginning to really master the art of painting, as well as the art of successfully telling stories/conveying emotion through painting. When something is in the palm of your hand, you control it completely. Alternatively, when a palm rests on something, its covers it – weighs heavily on it. I believe, in the same way, this is what the art of painting did to American artists. It rested on them – almost like a mandate, a command, an imperative path to follow. I believe American artists were following the mandate to paint, and learning to control and master it as they got better.

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  8. I believe that the, “palm of painting,” that Morse is referring to is the plainly, the interest and ability to paint. I believe that as technology and time moved forward, Morse was worried that painting would become a thing of the past. To his surprise in this quote, not only is it still present in his time, but he acknowledges that painting will continue to live on throughout the rest of American history.

    The transition from Colonial to early Federal art was a necessary one. America needed to move on from the plain portraiture paintings that came before. The transition allowed for a change in style, and brought a livelier, but no less exciting period of painting.

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  9. The meaning of “The palm of Painting” can vary into numerous aspects and thinking’s. But in my view, I feel it signifies that art would always be around regardless and will always play a big role in America. With these two paintings, they have a very high influence that gives off a message towards the masses. With Samuel Morse, he felt that all the choosing’s and decisions most likely from school within America would derive through visual imagery that would be direct/indirect. When transitioning to a new period where art had become more expressed freely and had more freedom that is viewed with a new society where art had no prior cautions where it may possibly do before. Art today had become a focal point where it is an influencer towards todays American people. When viewing visual imagery its outcomes still impact the surroundings everywhere around us and its brings us towards how we view the aspects of art and life.

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  10. The excerpt from Samuel F.B. Morse’s quote “The Palm of the Painting” could possibly be referring to the focus of the painting to be purely American. During this time, there is an influx of European inspired art that takes America by storm. With American portraiture falling behind, the transition to Federal art became much more interesting to look at. Also “The Palm of the Painting” could also be referring to America’s political power, and how the artist, Emanuel Leutze captures this in his paintings.

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