Artifact Corner: Episode 24 – Fulton Miniature Portraits

Hi everyone, and welcome to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at two miniature portraits. These portraits are of Frank Hall’s parents, Margaret Bloodgood Hall & Nathaniel Nye Hall. Frank Hall was the husband of Fannie Delord Webb Hall, who was the last family member to live in our house. Both of these portraits are watercolor on ivory in blue velvet frames. Each of these were painted by Robert Fulton. Both of these paintings were inspected by the Frick Museum in NYC, and they made the attribution to the artist Robert Fulton. Fulton is a pretty fascinating character, with a varied career.

Let’s take a look at Robert Fulton. Fulton was born Lancaster Pennsylvania on November 14th, 1765. His family were Irish immigrants who lost their farm due to a mortgage foreclosure. At the age of eight Robert was sent to a Quaker school for his early education. He later went on to apprentice at a Jewelry makers shop in Philadelphia, painting miniature portraits on ivory for lockets. Fulton was eager to progress his portrait painting, and sought sponsorships for a trip to Europe to study abroad. Robert traveled to London in 1787, and continued to paint, but did not make much of an impression on the art scene. By 1794, he had pretty much given up at being a painter, and started expressing an interest in canals and inland waterway travel. In 1796 he wrote the Treatise on the improvement of canal navigation. He designed bridges to accommodate canal boats, and there are a few bridges in the British Isles that are based on his designs. As for his designs for canals, no one in England was interested.

In 1797 Fulton traveled to France, in an attempt to further his civil engineering career, which was going no where in England. When he arrived in France, he tried to pitch the French government on a new vehicle he had conceived of, a submarine. At the time, Britain and France were at war, and Robert thought he could sell them on his idea as a means of destroying British ships. He thought his new machine would be able to creep under British war vessels, leave a explosive charge beneath them, and then detonate them at a later time. The French government turned him down, saying that this type of warfare would be barbaric and disgraceful. Fulton pushed on and funded the building of his submarine anyway, naming it Nautilus. He conducted his trials with his new machine in the Seine River, and finally got a government contract to test his vessel on British ships. The attempt was a total flop, and his submarine was far too slow to keep up with the British ships.

In 1801, Fulton met Robert R Livingston, an American diplomat to France, and one of the drafters of the U.S. Constitution. Livingston had obtained a 20 year monopoly for steamboat navigation in New York State. The two men decided to build a prototype of Fulton’s design for a steamboat. It was a 66 foot long vessel, with an eight horse power engine, and side paddle wheels. The engine ended up breaking the hull of the original vessel, but they put the engine on another hull, and they were encouraged by the results of the new hull. Robert ordered a larger engine, 24 horse power, with a plan to build a steamboat on the Hudson River. By 1806, Fulton was back in New York, and started work on his steamboat immediately. In August of 1807, his vessel was ready for trials. The goal was to create a much faster route from New York City to Albany. Their first run traversed the 150 miles in just 32 hours. This was a huge accomplishment, as sailing vessels took an average of 4 full days to make the trip from NY to Albany. By September, Fulton began commercial trips from Albany to NYC. His vessel, which was renamed, is now referred to as The Clermont.

By 1810, Fulton had three commercial steamboats operating on two different rivers, and his boats had replaced most of the horse powered ferries in Boston, NY, and Philadelphia. As the US entered into the War of 1812 with Britain, Fulton joined a commission for the building of the Erie Canal. Britain was blockading most ports, and the US needed to be able to move goods more effectively through our huge nation, without relying on the sea. Sadly, Fulton would not see the building or completion of the Erie Canal. In February of 1815, while traveling home to NYC from Trenton NJ, Robert caught a chill. He passed away on February 24, 1815, at age 49.

It was during his nine years back in the US that our portraits were painted. Even though Fulton’s most famous for his invention of the steamboat, he never stopped painting completely. This is a miniature portrait of Mrs. Manigault Heyward, and you can see that his portraiture style is very distinct. This portrait is also a watercolor on ivory, just like ours. Both of our miniatures are in good condition, given that they are over two hundred years old. The frames, which would have been completely covered with blue velvet have seen better days. They were likely painted between 1812 to 1815, given the attire that the pair are wearing. Nathaniel served as a Lieutenant in the War of 1812, and you can tell by the epaulets on his jacket that his is serving in the military. Also, Margaret’s hair and gown are distinctive to this period. We are so lucky to have these beautiful portraits in our collection. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,