In order to be correct in the anatomy he had first modelled the figure of his Hercules in clay, and this cast, by the advice of West, was entered in competition for a prize in sculpture given by the Society of Arts. It proved successful, and on May 13 the sculptor was presented with the prize and a gold medal by the Duke of Norfolk before a distinguished gathering in the Adelphi.
Flushed with his triumph, Morse determined to compete for the prize of fifty guineas and a gold medal offered by the Royal Academy for the best historical painting, and took for his subject, 'The Judgment of Jupiter in the case of Apollo, Marpessa, and Idas.' The work was finished to the satisfaction of West, but the painter was summoned home. He was still, in part at least, depending on his father, and had been abroad a year longer than the three at first intended. During this time he had been obliged to pinch himself in a thousand ways in order to eke out his modest allowance. 'My drink is water, porter being too expensive,' he wrote to his parents. 'I have had no new clothes for nearly a year. My best are threadbare, and my shoes are out at the toes. My stockings all want to see my mother, and my hat is hoary with age.'
Mr. West recommended him to stay, since the rules of the competition required the winner to receive the prize in person. But after trying in vain to get this regulation waived, he left for America with his picture, having, a few days prior to his departure, dined with Mr. Wilberforce as the guns of Hyde Park were signalling the victory of Waterloo.
Arriving in Boston on October 18, he lost no time in renting a studio. His fame had preceded him, and he became the lion of society. His 'Judgment of Jupiter' was exhibited in the town, and people flocked to see it. But no one offered to buy it. If the line of high art he had chosen had not supported him in England, it was tantamount to starvation in the rawer atmosphere of America. Even in Boston, mellowed though it was by culture, the classical was at a discount. Almost penniless, and fretting under his disappointment, he went to Concord, New Hampshire, and contrived to earn a living by painting cabinet portraits. Was this the end of his ambitious dreams?
Money was needful to extricate him from this drudgery and let him follow up his aspirations. Love may have been a still stronger motive for its acquisition. So he tried his hand at invention, and, in conjunction with his brother Sidney, produced what was playfully described as 'Morse's Patent Metallic Double-Headed Ocean-Drinker and Deluge-Spouter Pump-Box.' The pump was quite as much admired as the 'Jupiter,' and it proved as great a failure.
Succeeding as a portrait painter, he went, in 1818, on the invitation of his uncle, Dr. Finley, to Charleston, in South Carolina, and opened a studio there. After a single season he found himself in a position to marry, and on October 1, 1818, was united to Lucretia P. Walker, of Concord, New Hampshire, a beautiful and accomplished lady. He thrived so well in the south that he once received as many as one hundred and fifty orders in a few weeks; and his reputation was such that he was honoured with a commission from the Common Council of Charleston to execute a portrait of James Monroe, then President of the United States. It was regarded as a masterpiece. In January, 1821, he instituted the South Carolina Academy of Fine Arts, which is now extinct.
After four years of life in Charleston he returned to the north with savings to the amount of L600, and settled in New York. He devoted eighteen months to the execution of a large painting of the House of Representatives in the Capitol at Washington; but its exhibition proved a loss, and in helping his brothers to pay his father's debts the remains of his little fortune were swept away. He stood next to Allston as an American historical painter, but all his productions in that line proved a disappointment. The public would not buy them. On the other hand, he received an order from the Corporation of New York for a portrait of General Lafayette, the hero of the hour.
While engaged on this work he lost his wife in February, 1825, and then his parents. In 1829 he visited Europe, and spent his time among the artists and art galleries of England, France, and Italy. In Paris he undertook a picture of the interior of the Louvre, showing some of the masterpieces in miniature, but it seems that nobody purchased it. He expected to be chosen to illustrate one of the vacant panels in the Rotunda of the Capitol at Washington; but in this too he was mistaken. However, some fellow-artists in America, thinking he had deserved the honour, collected a sum of money to assist him in painting the composition he had fixed upon: 'The Signing of the First Compact on Board the Mayflower.'