The painting is "Gallery of the Louvre" by Samuel Morse; an American scientist and artist most commonly known for inventing the telegraph and Morse code. He began work on the canvas in 1831, while in Paris. The painting itself becomes a jumping off point into David McCullough’s latest work, the story of the American colony in Paris. As McCullough aptly points out, the Morse’s painting was created to bring ‘culture’ to the neophyte American nation:
"There were no museums here, as yet, in the 1830s, and no color representations of paintings," McCullough tells NPR’s Susan Stamberg. "So he was going to bring the culture of Europe — mainly the Renaissance Italian masterpieces in the Louvre collection — back to the United States for the benefit of his countrymen."
Morse was offering his countrymen a glimpse into the rarified air of Parisian art.
The painting, while fascinating in and of itself, is just part of the story of the American colony in Paris. The importance of France in the early formative years of the United States is little remarked. It’s a role that Filipinos, later in the 19th century, hoped that the United States would take on for the then fledgling Philippine Republic. We know how that turned out.
The story here is less about dredging up that old history, but to remark on the importance that Paris played in the formation of the Filipino nation. Like Morse and other Americans, many Filipinos spent years in Paris in exile. They were part in parcel with the Propaganda Movement that manifested itself in Europe in the late 19th century. Importantly, the Filipinos there were caught up in the explosion of ideas and philosophies taking place throughout Paris (and Europe at large) in the fin de siecle; even prior.
What we know of that time, those decades where Paris figured prominently in the Filipino diaspora, is the Juan Luna scandal. Where the most decorated of Filipino artists murdered his wife, mother-in-law and wounded others in a fit of anger. He was set free, true. But what is little remarked is why he was set free. What we say is that there was an unwritten, but accepted rule, that cuckolded men could kill their wives. However, the French also saw Luna as a savage; it was expected of someone from his racial background to act in such a reprehensible manner.
The Luna Scandal resonates somewhat in modern times. But what of the rest? What of Felix Roxas, Agoncillo, Pardo de Tavera, Antonio Luna, Jose Rizal and so many more? What of their experiences in the City of Lights? How were they subtly (and not so subtly) influenced by the panoply of experiences and ideas during their travels in Europe?
What culture and ideas did they transmit, did they bring back, to the Philippines?
Because the fact is that Filipinos abroad, and by extension Filipinos here, were influenced by the new philosophies floating around Europe. As much as they were rebelling against the old ways of thinking that were still extant. Obviously, on the political front, Republicanism in Spain highly influenced early political traditions of the reformists. On the other hand, from all of the published propaganda and social agitations, how did Filipino thinkers influence European public discourse? Much like with Mexico at the beginning of the 19th century, we continually overlook our influence on events abroad. Influence and exchange is a two-way street. And at the time, the Philippines figured somewhat prominently in European (especially Spanish) affairs.
The richness and importance of the Philippine diaspora tradition is frequently overlooked and remains understudied in our historiography. Again, if certain historians are to be believed, it was as if the Philippine Revolution and Republic sprang up spontaneously; just developed randomly. That is a conceit that remains wholly untrue. Initial work by historians like Schumacher and even Ben Anderson prove otherwise. The key is furthering that work and research to truly understand our influences and place in global affairs at the end of the 19th century.
What glimpses into new ideas and culture did our countrymen in Europe offer their brethren back home? How did that make us who we were, who we are today? It is a magnificent, complex and important story that remains yet untold.