Painted plaster bust of Robert Fulton by Jean-Antoine Houdon, ca. 1803. The bust is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org) Wrightsman Fund, 1989 (1989.329)The next time you are passing through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, do not neglect to pay your respects to Mr. Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat that, in 1807, focused the attention of the world on the Hudson River. You will not find him in the American Wing, but in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts galleries, in the same room as the Emperor Napoleon. Why is the bust of an American engineer and inventor in the French decorative arts galleries, and why would anyone have commissioned a portrait of him before he built the steamboat that made him famous throughout the world? Those of you who read Judy Chamberlain’s excellent biography of Robert Fulton in the Spring 2009 Hastings Historian will know the answer to those questions. But for those who didn’t, we shall recap.
Robert Fulton was born in 1765 in a farming community in Pennsylvania and quickly demonstrated talents for both art and engineering. He was fascinated by mechanical problems, but his real passion was painting. When he was twenty-one, he left the United States to study with his idol Benjamin West, an American painter who had found fame and fortune in England. West was the official historical painter to King George III and a founding member of the British Royal Academy. Fulton studied with West for about five years and then gave up painting as a career. Scholarly opinions differ as to whether this was due to financial difficulties, a growing fascination with engineering, or a lack of artistic talent.
In any case, in West’s studio Fulton met important men who became the patrons and supporters of Fulton’s inventions, many of these concerned with solving problems in naval engineering. In 1797, Fulton went to Paris looking for money to develop a new kind of vessel – the Nautilus, an underwater warship armed with torpedoes. (The name was borrowed, many years later, by Jules Verne for the ship of Captain Nemo.) With the support of a few ministers in the French government, Fulton built a test model and demonstrated it on the Seine in 1800. For a time, both the French and English governments had their eye on the submarine, but they eventually lost interest.
Another of Fulton’s long-time interests was the steamboat. Many men had worked on designs for steamboats, and some even worked, but no one had yet made a commercial success of a steamboat business. Another man obsessed by steam travel was Chancellor Robert Livingston of New York. He arrived in Paris in 1801, having been appointed U.S. Ambassador to France. Livingston had an estate on the Hudson River and had himself attempted to build a steamboat, which had ultimately failed. This was of vital concern to him, since in 1798 he had managed to finagle the exclusive rights to navigate the waters of New York by steam for twenty years. This would be worthless if he could not produce a machine that could carry a decent-sized cargo and keep a reliable schedule. With financial support from Livingston, Fulton constructed a steam-powered ship to his own design and, in August of 1803, the boat steamed up the Seine. The trial run attracted an enormous crowd, including officers of Napoleon’s staff and members of the French National Academy.
1804 painting by Louis Leopold Boilly of Jean-Antoine Houdon sculpting the bust of Pierre Simon, Marquise de Laplace, a friend of Fulton and instrumental in arranging for government support of the submarine project. The women in the studio are Laplace’s wife and daughters. The painting is in the collection of the Musee des Art Decoratif, Paris.In the same year, perhaps in celebration of the successful steamboat trip, two portrait busts, one of Fulton and the other of Fulton’s friend Joel Barlow, were commissioned from the sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. Houdon was the most famous portrait sculptor in Europe. All the important men and women of the age came to Houdon for their portraits – the Emperor Napoleon and Josephine, Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson even arranged for him to come to the United States to take the likeness of George Washington. It isn’t known who commissioned the busts of Fulton and Barlow, but there is speculation that Barlow, a wealthy diplomat living in Paris, ordered both of them. A young inventor who had yet to make his fortune would probably not have been able to afford such a luxury.
But Fulton’s luck was soon to change. He and Livingston returned to New York in 1806 with the test results of Fulton’s 1803 ship. Fulton immediately started work on a new vessel called the North River Steamboat. There had been so many failed attempts at steam navigation that the boat was popularly referred to as “Fulton’s Folly.” But when the North River Steamboat set out from Manhattan for Albany on August 17, 1807, it exceeded Livingston’s expectations. Later renamed the Clermont after Livingston’s estate, the ship was the cornerstone of the first successful steamboat business, opening up the Hudson River to trade, travel, and industry. In the decades that followed, steamships based on Fulton’s designs transformed rivers all over the United States from barriers into highways of commerce and colonization.