This bust depicts one of the last of many Americans to be sculpted by Houdon, the French master portraitist whose earlier images of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin are embedded in our national consciousness. A painter first and an inventor second, Fulton sat for Houdon while visiting Paris in a fruitless attempt to enlist funding for his submarine invention several years before the ultimately successful Hudson River voyage of his steamship Clermont. The bust appears to have been commissioned by poet and diplomat Joel Barlow, a close friend of Houdon residing in Paris. In this apparently unique model, the handsome subject's air of vigor and informality is emphasized by the insouciance of his flaring overcoat lapels; later, buttoned-up versions of the bust echo the graver quality of Houdon's portrait of Barlow, with which the Fulton portrait originally was paired.
A fitting coda to our already stellar collection of Houdon's pre-Revolutionary sculpture, this lively image also differs from the artist's Empire-era portraits of Europeans, which conform to a more severe Neoclassical mode. It may express the aging sculptor's view of the American spirit unfettered by Old World manners.
Signature: Incised on tranche under right shoulder: houdon f.
Paris Art market , 1920s ; Sarah Hunter Kelly , New York (in 1975–1982) ; [ sale, Christie's, New York , November 20, 1982, lot 317; sold for $220,000 ] ; [ Wendell Cherry , New York, in 1989 ] ; [ sale, Christie's, New York , December 1, 1989, lot 12; sold to MMA ]