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How unsuccessful projects and unexpected connections can lead to one’s true calling

Moments in Time by Jan Siegel
Moments in Time by Jan Siegel

By Jan Siegel

With the months of May and June come graduations and the beginning of new careers, dreams and expectations. Be open to new challenges and new adventures—you may be surprised where they take you.

Everyone is aware of Samuel Morse and his invention of the telegraph and Morse code in 1844. But that is not how he started out in his career—first, he was an artist. Morse wanted to become a historical painter and bring history to the masses. He also wanted Americans to appreciate paintings of the masters. To show the public the “Old Masters” of art from Europe, he went to Paris and created a 6-foot by 9-foot painting of 38 works of the Old Masters, including the Mona Lisa, and proceeded to bring the painting back to the United States and show it to the public for 25 cents a pop. The painting, titled “Gallery of the Louvre,” was not well received. In the early part of the 19th century, European art was not part of the psyche of the American public.

While in Paris, Morse saw the telegraph that the French had constructed. Their invention had major issues—it did not work at night or when it rained or snowed. Morse decided he could do better, and when his great painting failed to capture an audience, he turned all of his energy to inventing an electric telegraph. And the rest is history.

During his time as an artist, Morse met and befriended artist John G. Rand. He saw talent in Rand and encouraged him to pursue a career in art. Rand became known as a portrait painter. He traveled to England and became popular with the royal family. While in England, he invented a tube in which to keep paints. This small invention revolutionized art.

Until Rand’s invention in 1841, paint and painting had remained unchanged for almost 400 years, since the Renaissance. Oil paints were time-consuming to make and dried out quickly, so artists could only produce a few colors at a time and then had to use them quickly. If artists wanted to go outside to paint, they placed the paint in a pig’s bladder, which was like a balloon. To use the paint, the artist would have to poke a hole in the bladder, paint, and then try to cover up the hole in the bladder. But that was not always successful. Often, the hole was not properly sealed and would leak or just dry out. Rand’s invention allowed many colors to be carried outside at once, and the closing of each tube with a screw top kept the paints from drying out and leaking.

This invention did not become popular until the impressionist movement caught on in the late 19th century. Plein air painting became much easier with the invention of the tube. A leading impressionist painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir once said, “without paint in tubes, there would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism.”

Every Friday at 11 a.m., Mission San Juan Capistrano has a docent-led art walk which highlights the religious and plein air art in the Mission collection. Since the start of Impressionism, the Mission has been a gathering place for artists. Madame Modjeska, the great Shakespearean actress, painted at the Mission, as well as plein air artist Percy Austin. Visiting the Mission is a perfect way to recollect how history and art have come together in our community. And it all started when a struggling artist, Morse, encouraged a young man, Rand, to pursue his dream. That man revolutionized how we make art and think of art.

The weekly art walk is free with your admission to the Mission. Spend a “Moment in Time” and reflect on how history, art and dreams have changed our lives.

Jan Siegel is a 28-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 18 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.

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