The Capitol Dome

Spring 2014

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The American Artist as Scientist Constantino Brumidi's Fresco of Robert Fulton for the United States Capitol by omas P. Somma O n Monday, August 17, 1807, at one o'clock in the afternoon, Robert Fulton's North River Steamboat (now known to history as the Clermont), began its epochal maiden voyage up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany, traveling the distance in a mere thirty-two hours, faster than any sailing vessel could hope to man- age. Four days later, the Clermont (fig. 1) safely returned without fanfare to its dock in Greenwich Village. While the immediate response to Fulton's triumph was less than enthusiastic, the steamboat quickly became an American icon, recognized everywhere as symbolic of a pivotal moment in the commercial destiny of the nation. 1 e Clermont's success signaled more than the begin- ning of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. As Kirkpatrick Sale argues in his biography of Fulton, this event revealed in a particularly effective way the principles of the American dream as that dream took shape during the late colonial and early republic periods: "the pursuit of happiness through material betterment, Yankee know- how in service to technological improvement, a belief in human perfectibility and individual achievement, a mate- rial destiny of expansion and conquest, and a government formed to advance industry and promote prosperity." 2 Originally trained as a miniature portrait painter, Fulton left the United States in 1787 to study with the influen- tial American expatriate painter Benjamin West (1738– 1820), with whom he developed a close and sustained personal relationship. But by the mid-1790s, Fulton had laid his paints and pictures aside to concentrate on activities more related to the mechanical arts-especially canal building, the design of torpedoes, and steam-pow- ered navigation-as more practical, not to mention more lucrative, outlets for his talents and ambitions. In redi- recting his artistic energies into technological invention, Fulton exemplified the artist as scientist, a phenomenon rooted in the Renaissance and a relatively common occurrence in post-Revolutionary War America. Fulton's shift from artist to inventor would not have seemed as curious to early American republicans as it might to us today. For one thing, as Joseph J. Ellis explains in After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture (1979), eighteenth-century America's "enthusiasm for the arts was part of a larger enthusiasm for the benign effects of liberation that accompanied the emergence of market conditions in colonial society." us, for late eigh- teenth-century Americans, "politics, the arts, economic development, and demography, were not separate spheres of human activity but interlaced strands comprising the social fabric. . . . [A]rtistic creativity and economic pro- ductivity both [were considered] natural consequences of liberal political conditions." 3 Nonetheless, American attitudes toward art and artists became increasingly ambivalent during the post- Revolutionary War period. In fact, "as the arts became more visible," Ellis continues, "they became the favorite target of ministers, political officials, and pamphleteers who described themselves as guardians of the virtuous principles for which, they claimed, the Revolution had supposedly been fought." Consequently, more and more Americans came to associate the arts "with degeneration rather than progress." 4 Fig. 1. A full-size replica of the steamer Clermont was built in 1909. Here it is seen photographed at anchor. 18 LIBRARY OF CONGRESS THE CAPITOL DOME SPRING 2014

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