Historian David McCullough ’55 spoke to approximately 400 people at the Yale University Art Gallery Sunday afternoon to discuss “Gallery of the Louvre,” a painting by Samuel Morse 1810. Morse’s painting, first exhibited in New Haven in 1834, is on loan from the Terra Foundation and will be on display in the Yale University Art Gallery until June 12.

McCullough explained the importance of Morse’s friendship with James Fenimore Cooper, who was expelled from Yale College in 1806 for locking a donkey in a classroom and setting off a bomb in a dorm. Cooper provided moral encouragement to Morse while he painted his masterpiece at the Louvre during Paris’s ongoing cholera epidemic.

“Art ought to be for everybody,” McCullough explained of Morse’s painting.

Morse’s painting demonstrates conspicuous artistic choices, McCullough explained, such as which artworks to depict and the diversity of people at the Louvre. Morse intended for his painting to be accompanied with a code so that viewers could decipher which paintings were represented. This “code” is part of the inspiration for his later inventions of Morse code and the telegraph.

McCullough is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.