A compact but remarkably in-depth and far-reaching art history lesson, the short video A New Look: Samuel F.B. Morse's Gallery of the Louvre, created as a commemorative/educational piece by the Terra Foundation for American Art, manages to do several things surprisingly well given its tiny 30-minute running time. It is principally a document recording and celebrating the restoration of an interesting and important work of art, but it also spans outward to touch intriguingly and informatively on American cultural history, technological development, international communication, and cultural exchange.
Samuel Morse is much better known as the inventor of the telegraph and the code that bears his name, but his first (and ultimately unrequited) love was art, and his highest ambition was to become a great painter. In aid of that pursuit, he put himself under the tutelage of a well-regarded American painter, Washington Allston, and made lengthy European journeys to study a Western artistic heritage that, at the time (the early part of the 19th century), had not yet made its way to the rough, uncultured, burgeoning nation that was more concerned with looking westward than back over its shoulder from whence it came. Morse, in love with the richness, variety, and level of achievement on display in the art museums of old Europe, undertook his most memorable painting project, Gallery of the Louvre, during an extended stay in Paris during the early 1830s. Already an enamored, expert copyist/re-creationist of all the styles of the old Masters, he would create a large canvas depicting the Salon Carré of the Louvre's grande galérie, reimagined as his own top-picks museum collecting all the great works he loved best, thus consolidating his talent for capturing the precise aesthetic properties of all of Europe's best painters through the ages (the Mona Lisa is in there, as well as other light-and-color-saturated masterpieces by Tintoretto and Titian) and compiling this rich heritage in one work so that American audiences--to whom Morse desperately wanted to pass on his appreciation and admiration for fine-art traditions--could have the opportunity to experience, albeit indirectly, the glories of a trip to the Louvre. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time, however, and he eventually gave up on his unsuccessful struggle to become a great American painter, submitting to his fate as a genius inventor whose technological advances were more in line with what his young, rapidly expanding, on-the-move country was inclined to embrace.
This story is told in A New Look through concise, accessibly written voice-over narration, with excerpts from Morse's diary and many views of his own works, those he included in Gallery of the Louvre, and pictorial representations of life in the U.S. and Europe at the time. The video's other, equally fascinating story--the restoration of the painting after years of neglect and misguided prior restoration attempts--is told through interviews with the expert restorers, Lance Mayer and Gay Myers, and in footage of them at their painstaking work, with context on the aesthetic properties and intentions being brought back to life in Morse's painting provided by inserts from interviews with various art experts, including many specialists who work in the Louvre itself.
The style of A New Look is very straightforward, even utilitarian, bearing no authorial imprint to speak of; this is definitely an institutional work, the kind of production screened on a loop at museums in conjunction with a showing of the painting, and then available for purchase at the gift shop. But it is very well put together, and filled with enough visual and spoken stimulation and insight that one can easily overlook the occasionally bland television-commercial tone of the pleasant narrator and the canned, Muzak-like musical accompaniment. As educational experiences go, A New Look is not just painless, but actually enjoyable in its frame of reference-expanding look at a neglected work and those saviors whose vocation leads them to rescue such treasures from corrosion and oblivion.
A New Look was evidently shot with nice, high-grade digital video, which, as usual, makes the transition to DVD with ease, in an anamorphic widescreen transfer. I noticed no visual flaws, aliasing, or artifacts, and the artworks on display come through with their nuances of color and gradations of visual detail readily discernible.
The video does not put many demands on its Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack, which is presented here with its full aural dimensionality intact; all voices and music are clear and immediately present throughout.
There are no extras whatsoever on the disc itself, but it does come housed in a very handsome gatefold case that reproduces the "map" of his painting that Morse provided to ticket-buyers for the initial showing, which usefully identifies each of the works and figures depicted in Gallery of the Louvre.
There is nothing of any great cinematic/videographic inspiration or innovation here, but A New Look goes above and beyond its pedagogical-tool aims, giving us a complete experience of Morse's painting and extensive historical, biographical, and cultural context with seemingly effortless succinctness. This one is Highly Recommended to anyone with even the most casual, passing interest in art, its history, and/or its restoration.