Technology and Consciousness in the Brumidi Corridor of the United States Capitol


By John Dyer

Robert Fulton: Everything Is Invented

The portrayal of Robert Fulton is the third and last we shall consider that Brumidi executed. Through the image's stative iconography, we discover how complete an impact man now has on his surroundings. Everything in the picture bears the stamp of the inventor's imagination, as if the totality of his existence were an immense Fitch's model.

As the power of the individual imagination has increased, so has the disparity between nature and the individual. Franklin sought to understand nature through reason, Fitch to craft his private ideas to it. Here, we find that in refiying Fitch's model, Fulton has abstracted the world, transforming it into a product of his imagination. We see this particularly in the depictions of the New Jersey palisades and DeWitt Clinton.

The steamboat began the era when man no longer depended on the winds and tides that previously had been the locomotion for sea travel. Similarly, the Clermont seems to defy the bold cliffs it sails by.

Fulton's leisurely pose, his legs covered in a blanket, emphasizes this sense of security and comfort from the hazards of nature. His is now able to contemplate the ways of the outside world in seclusion, just as Franklin could, but he does so without Franklin's air of curiosity or Fitch's manic self-reflection. Indeed, he doesn't look out at us or inward towards himself but rather makes an effort to bring the viewer into the picture. Fulton pointing to the 'outside world' replaces the question Franklin asked in the first lunette with a new credo for the inventor: Let me show you. We, too, 'look through' the eyes of the artist (Brumidi, in this case) to see the world. Concomitantly, the inventor seeks to unify the world in his own image, making his machines part of his regular experience. Hence, the steamboat is aesthetically part of the seascape, which we view as if from a gallery.

The easel on the far right of the lunette continues this point. Governor De Witt Clinton of New York, Fulton's benefactor, is depicted painting himself on the canvas. Not only does Fulton abstract Clinton, Clinton abstracts himself! The individual invents himself as well as his environment. These paintings within the fresco tell us that the individual's imagination has taken absolute control over the perception of reality, including his perception of himself.

Note, however, that this intimacy between the individual and his creation, which is now his whole experience, retains the distance the past two inventors encountered. We have substituted the easel for the experiment and the model. Furthermore, painting oneself and the greater environment implies a new instability--what was there before one created it? How can one create oneself in the first place? The question of origin has been elided in favor of the means of representation.

The positive aspect of this scenario, I think, is that presence of the easel in the studio. Besides serving as a metaphor for the self, and as an indication of the plasticity of science and the environment, the painting connotes to us that the climate in America is conducive to the fine arts. Historically, the subjects of the fresco were closer to the arts as well. Clinton was a patron for the arts as well as for industry. Fulton tried his hand at painting before he became an inventor. And of course, Brumidi himself would have been interested in this subject. In 1873, many signs in the republic, such as its upcoming first centennial, for example, pointed towards a readiness to thrive culturally as it had economically.

Such large scale overhaul of the national consciousness requires the efforts of more than one individual. Consequently, as the moment when one expects the freedom of the imagination to spell the emancipation of the inventor, or artist, we find Fulton's space shared for the first time by another person, his benefactor. Clinton oversaw the digging of the Erie canal, which required a massive labor force. Similarly, Fulton could not have built his machine alone. He needed financial and political superstructures. Moreover, for the first time we find the inventor cut off from his machine. Someone else operates the Clermont. In its sweeping alteration of the environment, technology has changed the singular aspect of invention.

Fulton's steamboat represents a commercial success, a popular victory that was seen as an advancement for the entire nation. Rivers could be navigated more easily upstream, straits could be quickly forded. Fulton's version of the steamboat was about communication, business and industry as much as it was about a technological innovation. The next lunettes follow the precedent set by Fulton.