Painting Portraits and Miniatures

There comes in every boy’s life a day of great decision; it is when school days are over, and the boy, face to face with the toiling world, decides by which branch of industry he shall perform his share of the world’s work to earn his living. Such a day came to Robert Fulton and he had prepared himself for it.

His mother’s early lessons, the sterner teaching of Caleb Johnson, the visits to the machine-shops, the constant sketching with pencil and crayon,—all had enriched his mind for this day of the choice of vocation. As he felt the call to a larger field of action than Lancaster afforded, it was natural that in seeking his fortune he should turn to the nearest big city, Philadelphia, noted as a center for the peaceful arts of the gentle Quaker folk, its founders.

Robert Fulton was seventeen years old when he left Lancaster to take up his abode in Philadelphia. With war at an end, the country had entered upon the enjoyment of the welcome fruits of peace.

As we study the few facts known about Fulton during this period, it is easy to discover several important reasons which influenced him toward art as a career, and Philadelphia as a place of residence.

Benjamin West, a native of Chester County, Pennsylvania, was at this time famous as a painter in London; he was a man whose success had brought special pride to Lancaster, for he had there begun his career as portrait painter. West’s father, an intimate friend of Robert Fulton’s father, allowed his son, at the early age of twelve, to visit Lancaster in order to paint the portraits of a certain Mrs. Ross and her children. He had been so successful that orders poured in, taxing his time and strength to fill them. Canvas could not be had, so he painted his pictures upon smooth boards. His genius had been shown when he was very young, for at the age of seven he sketched a correct likeness of his sister’s child in the cradle. He had no colors to work with until a party of friendly Indians visited his home, and Benjamin, in boyish pride, showed them his pencil sketches. They generously gave him the colors they used to paint their faces and ornaments, hues extracted from the juices of berries and herbs. They also taught him to mix the paints to form new shades and combinations. He had no brush, so he made one by taking from the tail of a cat some furry hairs which he pulled up through a goose-quill. We remember the adage, “A poor workman blames his tools.” A good workman can manage to make tools from almost nothing, if he really wants to work.

The fame of Benjamin West in London was a favorite topic of conversation in Lancaster. Robert Fulton had already been able to sell mechanical drawings to the shops and had painted tavern-signs, as had West, for local inns. What more natural than that Fulton, with like talent for art, should decide to adopt portrait-painting as his profession?

Mrs. Fulton’s heart must have been very full as she bade her eldest son goodby and saw him mount the stage-coach for the journey to Philadelphia. He had some friends in the city, Lancaster people who had gone there for business or other reasons, for a large city always drains the adjacent villages of the enterprising folk who desire greater fields for action.

Robert Fulton had a cheerful and happy nature and a real talent for making friends, so he soon added new acquaintances to his list, though he was always particular to choose his companions wisely.

It was a brave venture for a country lad of seventeen[23] to attempt self-support by art in a great city, but he was eager to acquire every kind of knowledge, and applied himself earnestly to whatsoever his hand could find to do. He designed carriages and buildings; he made mechanical drawings for machine-shops; he copied sketches in India ink; he painted tavern-signs, and all the while, he studied the finer art of portrait and miniature painting, with the hope of making this alone his profession when time should grant him sufficient skill.

An interesting example of Fulton’s early art is a sketch in India ink of a French landscape, showing peasant women washing linen by the side of a stream. It is entitled “La Blanchiseuse” and signed “Robert Fulton, March 15, 1783,” so it was made during his first year in Philadelphia. Probably it was a copy of a French engraving in the Museum where Fulton took lessons when he could afford to employ a teacher.

At that time Charles Wilson Peale was the foremost artist in Philadelphia, and it is thought that Fulton availed himself of his instruction,—at any rate they were friends during later life.

In 1785 the young Lancaster student was registered in the city directory, “Robert Fulton, Miniature Painter, Cor. of 2d. & Walnut Streets,” which indicates that he was launched in his profession. The following year he painted a portrait of his “Good Friend, Joseph Bringhurst,” a Quaker patron. This portrait is labeled “Second portrait in oils”, which defines the time when Fulton began to paint large portraits, although prior to this date he had made many crayon portraits and miniatures.

At that time Benjamin Franklin, about to go to France as American Ambassador, was the chief personage of Philadelphia. It was a fine feather in Fulton’s cap when the great man showed him favor. Franklin admired Fulton’s painstaking work and pleasant manner; it is said that he showed him unusual attention and introduced him to prominent men of the city. From this time Fulton’s services as a portrait painter were steadily engaged and orders flowed in. In 1787 Benjamin Franklin himself sat for his portrait, and this, of course, greatly helped to set the fashion. Its astonishing adventures are thus described in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography:

A portrait of Ben. Franklin painted by Robert Fulton of steamboat celebrity. On the back of the canvas is written “R. Fulton, Pinxt, 1787.” The history of this rare picture is distinctly traceable back thirty-three or thirty-four years, at which time it was sold at auction for twenty-five cents. For thirty years it hung without frame in the sitting room of a Rhode Island farmer. At another time[25] it was used as a barrel cover in a farmer’s garret, and still later ornamented an engine house. The Rev. Henry Baylies found it in a photograph gallery in Fall River, Massachusetts. Mr. Baylies sold it in 1891 to C. F. Gunther, of Chicago.

Among the prominent citizens to whom Franklin introduced young Robert Fulton was John Ross, a successful merchant, who in friendly interest suggested that the artist should make a specialty of crayon likenesses of the young ladies in society. To set the fashion, Mr. Ross ordered portraits of his two daughters, Margaret and Clementina.

Mr. Ross was devoted to Clementina and when summoned to Paris on business for the government, wished her to accompany him; but Mrs. Ross, knowing that the ocean was infested by pirates, feared that their daughter might fall into their hands and raised so strong an objection that Clementina stayed at home. So Mr. Ross had her crayon portrait copied on ivory and carried the miniature as traveling companion.

Fulton’s portrait shows Margaret Ross in fancy dress, with tall jeweled head-gear, holding in her hand a full-blown rose.

Perhaps the daintiest bit of work ever accomplished by Fulton was an exquisite miniature of a certain Mary West, so tiny that it is set, as a jewel, in a finger ring. The likeness, oval in shape, is surrounded by brilliants. According to family tradition, Fulton painted the ring that Mary West’s brother might wear it at the Court of St. James in London. Her father, William West, came to live in Philadelphia about 1750 and was probably related to Benjamin West, the artist.

It is easy to see that, by reason of hard work, Fulton was already on the highway to success. He persevered at his profession and gained not merely money but also the esteem and confidence of his friends. Unfortunately, constant labor began to tell upon his health and, when he was twenty years old, a heavy cold fastened so severely upon him that he fell ill with inflammation of the lungs, followed by symptoms of the dread disease, consumption.

He consulted an eminent doctor, by whose advice he immediately left the city, with a proposed ocean voyage in view for the benefit of his health. He journeyed first by stage-coach to the famous Hot Springs of Virginia, where it is said some of his father’s relatives had taken up land. This change did him great good. He not only gained strength but made many new friends. Their advice deepened his desire to go to Europe to view the art treasures of the old world, and, with the doctor’s[27] prescription of an ocean voyage in mind, he began to plan to cross the Atlantic.

During his stay in Philadelphia, nearly four years, he had grown from a country lad, eager to earn his livelihood, into a young man of ability, whose friendship with intelligent men, coupled with his unremitting study, had given him mental poise and an easy manner of deportment. No longer was he awkward and shy, but ready to mingle with men and women of culture and feel himself, as indeed he was, one of them. He had, moreover, proved the fact that he could earn his living by art, for he had saved a substantial “nest-egg,” as the result of his industry. With the happy optimism of youth he looked on the bright side of life and was eager to see the old world across the seas. It was a wise decision. His mind was open to receive impressions and keen to recognize universal needs, which he could later help science to provide.

One anxiety alone clouded the prospect; not his ill health,—for already he felt stronger and was assured that he was on the way to complete recovery,—but tender thought for his widowed mother. Up to this time he had been able, from time to time, to send her gifts of money; now he took counsel with his friends as to how he might best provide for her future comfort.

A family who owns its home is free from the monthly bill of rental to a landlord. A “roof over the head” is of prime importance to ease of mind. Possibly Fulton’s remittances of money had been devoted to house rent; be that as it may, he decided before he set sail for England to provide his mother with a home of her own. She was fond of a garden, and flowers were her delight; so he decided that a small farm, where food could be produced for the family of growing girls and the younger brother, would prove to be the best and wisest gift he could bestow. Our next chapter will tell of the pleasant farm on which Fulton established his mother and family before he set sail for the old world.

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