Recognition of the artistry that led to the F-ACF Lafayette Prize, Legion of Honor, Medal of Freedom, and Pulitzer.
Day after day, James Cooper walked miles from his home across the Seine to watch his friend Morse work atop a painter’s scaffold in the middle of the Louvre. The year was 1832. As David McCullough tells us in The Greater Journey, “no American prior to Morse … had set himself to so great and difficult a Paris subject” (64). He was to paint one of the galleries, but reimagined to feature dozens of European masterpieces from the 16th and 17th centuries – think Raphael, Titian, and Da Vinci. Morse was endeavoring to become a great “history painter,” and these were the works he felt his compatriots back home needed to see.
Morse was a Parisian sensation, and “Cooper enjoyed the show more than anyone, occasionally, for comic relief, offering his friend a little unsolicited advice: ‘Lay it on here, Samuel – more yellow – the nose is too short – the eye too small – damn it, if I had been a painter what a picture I would have painted’” (66). Yet Cooper was a “history painter” in his own right. He was America’s most famous author, with reviewers often likening “his eye for description to that of a painter” (63). His novels, which included The Last of the Mohicans, presented the French with the American story of adventure, conquest, and frontier life.
Most of the Americans traveling in Morse and Cooper’s time came to Paris having read La Fontaine, Voltaire, Racine, or Molière in translation. Their sense of place was very much derived from books. Cooper’s novels afforded the French the same opportunity, with one notable difference: the French played a role in the American stories, whether in the setting – the French and Indian War in the case of The Mohicans – or in characters, like Monsieur Le Quoi in The Pioneers. With each work of historical fiction, Cooper was giving the French a picture of America. And, as Honoré de Balzac wrote of Cooper, “in his hands the art of the pen had never come closer to the art of the brush” (63).
McCullough, too, thought “of writing history as an art form.” Like Morse, his “earliest ambition was to be … a portrait painter.” He studied English and visual arts at Yale and continued to paint until his death on August 7th, 2022. But, ultimately, McCullough’s chosen medium was words. His numerous accolades came to resemble those of Cooper: “as [a] historian, he paints with words, giving us pictures of the American people that live, breathe, and above all, confront the fundamental issues of courage, achievement, and moral character.” It’s a felicitous repetition, because, as McCullough tells us in his Jefferson lecture, “[he] learned to love history by way of books [such as] The Last of the Mohicans, with those haunting illustrations by the N.C. Wyeth.”
In a subsequent interview about The Greater Journey, McCullough offered the following advice: “I also particularly stress to people who say they want to become writers, young people, to take a course in drawing or painting, because it helps you to learn to see, to look. And that’s what writing is often about.” The quotation calls to mind a similar idea of Vladimir Nabokov’s, put forth in his essay, “Good Readers and Good Writers,”: we should “behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.” That is to say, we should take it all in at once, all of the story’s details, characters, and idiosyncrasies, without becoming too caught up in the sequence of events. And that is exactly what McCullough’s “painted” nonfiction allows us to do. We can join Morse and Cooper in 1830s’ Paris in a manner similar to that scene from Disney’s Mary Poppins, where Mary and the children jump into the world of Bert’s sidewalk drawings. In doing so, we can notice, just as McCullough did, “to what degree we are affected by the French and by French history.”
David McCullough Honored by the French Government — Boston Globe
David McCullough, The Art of Biography No. 2 — The Paris Review
Details on the Lafayette prize: David McCullough Muses on Presidents and Politics — WWD
‘History is Human’: Remembering David McCullough — The Atlantic
McCullough’s Jefferson Lecture: The Course of Human Events NEH
McCullough’s masterpiece about Americans in Paris: The Greater Journey — Simon & Schuster
Remembering Our Friend David McCullough — Library of Congress
Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre — Seattle Art Museum
Vladimir Nabokov’s essay: Good Readers and Good Writers — Lectures on Literature