A little-known self-portrait the miniature of Robert Fulton's wife, Harriet Livingston, owned by the New York Historical Society; a pair of portraits in oils of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Eckford, in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. and a superb one of Mrs. Walter Livingston, Mrs. Fulton's mother, still in the possession of descendants, are ample demonstration that Fulton the artist did not suffer because of the success of Fulton the inventor.
Without question Robert Fulton was possessed of more than average talents and was keenly interested in two spheres, painting and applied mechanics. The former was his first love, and following it brought him in contact with men who stimulated his active mind to real achievements in the realm of science. At the age of seventeen Robert Fulton was a recognized miniature painter in Philadelphia. Nine years later he was exhibiting in the Royal Academy in London, and for several years thereafter enjoyed the friendship and patronage of important noblemen, such as the Duke of Bridgewater, the Earl of Stanhope, and Lord Courtenay of Powderham Castle. Before he was thirty he had obtained his first patent, and by 1796 was the author of a published treatise on canal navigation of such scope that he could designate himself a civil engineer.
Other inventions followed rapidly. When Robert Fulton was thirty-six he made a successful demonstration of his submarine, which he called a torpedo. Both France and England were impressed by this invention, but the problem of dependable propulsion when submerged was yet to be solved. The next year hard-headed and wealthy Chancellor Robert Livingston heard Fulton explain the possibilities of steam navigation; Robert Fulton agreed to finance the building of such a boat and entered into a fifty-fifty partnership with the artist-inventor. On August 17, 1807, the Clermont made her maiden trip from New York to Albany. The inventor was then only forty-two, just a year older than Morse when the latter began his experiments with electric telegraphy.
In the eight years that remained to Robert Fulton (he was only fifty when he died), both art and the steamboat claimed his attention and capacities. There were steamboats to ply the Mississippi; steamboats for Russia; and, finally, the steam-powered ferry connection between New York and Brooklyn which, until it was abandoned in 1930, was continuously called Fulton Ferry.
Although the artist-inventor painted from the time he was seventeen until practically the end of his life, surprisingly few examples of his work are recorded. He is known to have painted twenty-seven portraits, fifteen miniatures, and three subject paintings. Even though Robert Fulton's inventions claimed much of his time, especially in his later years, one feels that more canvases than are recorded must have come from the easel of such a prodigious worker. But only three years of the period, when he was primarily a painter, were spent in his native land. The remainder was divided between eleven spent in England and nine years chiefly in Paris. Possibly a thorough search of private collections abroad, particularly those of Devonshire, England, might reveal additional examples of portraits by Robert Fulton.
Robert Fulton was born November 14, 1765, at Little Britain (now known as Fulton), Pennsylvania, the son of Robert Fulton, a prominent citizen of Lancaster in his day. At the time of his son's birth, he was trying to operate a recently acquired farm with indifferent success. In a few years the family returned to Lancaster, and there the artist-inventor spent his boyhood. According to researches of his great-granddaughter, Alice Crary Sutcliffe, Fulton's interests as a boy were divided between the practical mechanics of the Lancaster gunsmith shops, drawing, and painting. It is quite possible that Major Andre was one of his earliest teachers. This British officer was quartered as a prisoner of war with the family of Caleb Cope in the autumn of 1775. He acted as tutor to young John Cope and did some painting while there. John Cope and Robert Fulton were playmates. Whether the latter's early attempts at portraiture were guided by Major Andre or by some unknown local artist is not known, but at the age of seventeen Robert Fulton had moved to Philadelphia, where he studied with Charles Willson Peale and speedily set himself up as a miniature painter. The first directory of that city, published in 1785, lists him: "Fulton, Robert; miniature painter, Corner 2d and Walnut Streets."
A number of the Robert Fulton miniatures that have survived, such as those of Mr. and Mrs. John Wilkes Kittera, now owned by the Pennsylvania Historical Society, date from this time. They show that the young artist was possessed of considerable ability and that he had somehow mastered the technique of this type of painting to an extent far beyond what might be expected of one who had not yet attained his majority.
As was true all through Robert Fulton's life, Fulton was most industrious and was determined to be financially successful. To this end, he is. reputed to have done much mechanical and architectural drafting to augment his earnings. Low prices prevailed, both for this work and for miniatures, but he must have been a prolific worker, because in the four years that he spent in Philadelphia he earned enough money to buy a farm of about eighty acres at Hopewell, Pennsylvania, for his mother. He paid eighty pounds for it. He also purchased four building lots in the near-by town of Washington, apparently intended as gifts to his three sisters and brother.
The contracting parties mentioned in the deed of the farm were "Thomas Pollock and Margaret his wife of the one part and Robert Fulton, miniature painter, of the City of Philadelphia and State aforesaid, Yeoman of the other part." The sum paid must have been from the young artist's earnings and not from any patrimony, as the elder Fulton had died when Robert was only three years old, in far from opulent circumstances.
Having provided for his mother, Robert Fulton sailed for London late in 1786. He was low in funds but had a letter of introduction to Benjamin West, then at the height of his career as historical painter to the crown and fashionable portraitist. The letter was from Benjamin Franklin, who had been one of Fulton's clients. Except that no letter from the eminent Dr. Franklin was to be tossed lightly aside, Fulton would hardly have needed one to Benjamin West. The latter's parents had been intimate friends of the elder Robert Fulton and his wife back in Pennsylvania. The two families lived in adjoining counties, and there are two portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Fulton, Sr., painted by West in the 1750's before he went to London. Also, young Robert's sister, Mary, married West's nephew, David Morris.
The following extract from a letter written by Robert Fulton to his mother in 1792 is revealing:
I brought not more than 40 Guineas to England and was set down in a strange country without a friend and only one letter of Introduction to Mr. West. Here I had an art to learn by which I was to earn my bread but little to support while I was doing it. And a number of Eminent Men of the same profession which I must Excel before I could hope to live. Many, many a Silent Solitary hour have I spent in the most unnerved study, anxiously pondering how to make funds to support me till the fruits of my labours should be sufficient to repay them. Thus I went on for near f y ears till last summer I was invited by Lord Courtenay down to his country seat to paint a picture of him which gave his Lordship so much pleasure that he has introduced me to all his Friends. . . . You express much desire to know how my pictures were Rec'd at the Royal Academy. This, I believe I answered before but possibly the letter has miscarried. You will be pleased to hear that I sent eight pictures which Rec'd every possible mark of appreciation that the Society could give but these exertions are all for honour—there is no profit arising from it. It all tends to Create a name that may here- after produce business. My little tour through France proved very agreeable and was of some service to me as a painter in as much as I saw the works of some of the most able masters in the art which much improved my eye and taste.
By 1794 he was living in Paris at the home of Joel Barlow, American poet and patriot, who was then taking an active part in the politics of the French Directory and was later appointed, minister to France. The Barlow household was Fulton's permanent abode until his return to the United States. In 1800, need of money caused him to combine art and invention. The result was a panorama, "The Burning of Moscow," not that of Napoleon's time, but an earlier conflagration. Fulton did the painting and designed the special building in which it was displayed. For this he was granted a French patent which he sold to finance his torpedo-boat experiments.
On his arrival in New York, late in 1806,
he began constructing the steamboat contemplated in his agreement with
Livingston, which was to bring ample financial reward to both men and
international fame for Fulton. The boat, christened Clermont, after the
chancellor's country seat on the Hudson, was completed by midsummer, and
after a secret trial, started on her first voyage up the Hudson to Albany
on August 17, 1807. The following January the inventor married Harriet
Livingston, daughter of Walter Livingston, and second cousin of the chancellor.
Four children, were born to them; one was a son named Joel Barlow. On
February 24, 1815, Robert Fulton died in New York City and was buried
in the Livingston family vault in Trinity Churchyard.
There are several outstanding examples of Fulton's work after he returned to the United States. These include the self-portrait now in the Nelson Gallery, Kansas City; his miniature of his wife; the portrait of his mother-in-law; the companion portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Eckford; and his small, but most unusual, self-portrait showing the artist in his studio with the Clermont visible through an open window.
To illustrate "Columbiad," the lengthy patriotic poem by Joel Barlow, Fulton undertook the entire expense of providing seven full-page engravings on copper. This was in 1806 when he was busy with steamboat matters. So, except for the frontispiece, which was engraved by Anker Smith from the now lost portrait of Barlow by Fulton, the other paintings were done by Robert Smirke, at that time an outstanding English artist who painted chiefly subjects to be copied by engravers as book illustrations.
Whether Fulton painted for relaxation after his success with the Clermont is not known, but the period from 1807 to 1815 was a prolific one. Oil portraits, miniatures, and black-and-white drawings were done with equal ease, but he did not seek commissions from the public. On the contrary, he limited himself to self-portraits and to portraits of his wife's relatives and of friends. Among the latter is a miniature of Samuel Woodworth, minor American poet, best known for his well-worn classic, "The Old Oaken Bucket."