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Hood Museum of Art
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755

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Samuel Finley Breese Morse, American, 1791-1872

Erastus Torrey (1780-1828), Class of 1805M
Oil on millboard
Gift of Ellen Cabot Torrey; P.930.4


Dr. Erastus Torrey (1780-1828) graduated from Dartmouth Medical School in 1805 and practiced medicine in nearby Cornish, New Hampshire, and later Windsor, Vermont, where Samuel F. B. Morse painted his likeness. Morse had studied in London under Benjamin West and hoped initially to paint lofty historical subjects in the European manner. Like many American artists, he found little patronage for such ambitious works upon his return to this country. He resorted instead to portraiture, which he considered a relatively lowly pursuit. Unable to compete in Boston with the more successful portraitist Gilbert Stuart, Morse found a ready market for his talents in more rural regions, where he typically produced small likenesses for a modest fifteen dollars apiece. Characteristic of these affordable works is this portrait’s half-length pose (omitting the hands) and its dark, neutral background, adorned solely by the scrollback of a chair. Morse’s works from this period reveal his painterly, academically honed technique, moderated by a simplicity that appealed to his country patrons. Here Morse only minimally suggests Torrey’s slack figure, but he fluently models his face in delicate rosy tones reminiscent of the work of Stuart. Morse’s frustrations with the artistic climate in this country continued, however, and he gradually abandoned painting for science, later inventing the magnetic telegraph for which he is now famous.

Last Updated: 5/13/09