For a Record $3.25 Million, America Got 38 Paintings in One When Dan Terra Bought the Louvre

updated 01/17/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/17/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

For a painting of such auspicious lineage and conceived with such high hopes, Gallery of the Louvre (see pages 86-87) was a dismal underachiever during most of its 150 years. Its godparent was the great American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who encouraged the artist. Its father-creator was Samuel F.B. Morse, respected artist, scientist and socialite. A robust six feet high and nine feet wide, it depicted the Salon Carré of the Louvre in Paris, with Morse tutoring a female art student and Cooper, his wife and daughter in the left background; around them ranged no fewer than 38 identifiable miniatures of works by such masters as da Vinci, Rubens, Titian and Rembrandt. Most of all, Morse's painting had a mission: Finished in 1833, when the young U.S. was hell-bent on self-improvement, it was meant single-handedly to introduce the art of the Old World to the New.

So much for hopes. When it went on tour, hardly anybody came to see it. Too costly for Cooper, it was sold, and 12 years after Morse's death in 1872 it wound up at Syracuse University, where it remained for nearly a century.

But now there is a very happy ending indeed. Last July The Louvre was sold for the highest price ever paid for an American painting, $3.25 million, to Daniel Terra, one of Ronald Reagan's fund raisers and Ambassador-at-Large for Cultural Affairs. His express purpose was to put the painting on permanent public view. Last month the canvas made its debut at Washington's National Gallery of Art. And this spring, for toppers, The Louvre will be featured in an exhibition of American masterpieces from 1750 to 1900 at the Louvre. As its proud new owner says, "After 150 years, it's going home."

Terra, 71, came to art collecting in general and The Louvre in particular through his wife, Adeline, who died last year. "She had the knowledge and I had the courage," he says. "It wasn't even my idea to buy that painting. When we first saw it at Syracuse it wasn't hung well—it was above bookshelves in the library and the lighting was very poor, and it affected her far more than me. 'That painting is an American icon,' she told me. 'Why don't you buy it?' "

Born of Italian immigrant parents in Philadelphia, Terra went to Penn State, where he jettisoned plans for an acting career when he lost the lead in a musical to a rival Nittany Lion named Gene Kelly. He soon made up for it. At 28, with a $2,500 loan, he started Lawter Chemicals, which in 1980 had $80 million in sales. A longtime philanthropist, he founded the Terra Museum of American Art in Evanston, Ill. in 1980, though he was on the go seven days a week as Reagan's chief fund raiser. "I am convinced that Dan is the only man who traveled more than I did in that campaign," Reagan said later.

The Louvre's creator had a far more checkered career. A graduate of Phillips Academy, Andover and Yale, Samuel Morse's art early caught the eye of Gilbert Stuart and he was sent to England to study. Back in America, he made a modest income painting portraits (Lafayette, John Adams), and in Paris at 40 began The Louvre. It was on the boat home that he conceived the idea of sending messages electrically. He spent the next 12 years developing the telegraph and Morse code and in 1844 sent the historic message from the Capitol to an aide in Baltimore: "What hath God wrought!"

At his death Morse was hailed as a scientist but his art had been forgotten. Now what Morse hath wrought will make it into the Louvre he revered. "That's recognition," says Terra, beaming, of the exhibition he is supervising. "American paintings have finally arrived."

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