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Published: September 16, 2014
By: Julie Lindberg
BRIDGTON, MAINE — The largely self-taught artist and inventor Rufus Porter (1792–1884) painted murals, portraits, landscapes, gunboats and sleighs. He taught music and dance, built a grist mill and a camera obscura, invented a design for a revolving rifle that he sold to Samuel Colt and founded both the enduring publication Scientific American, which dates to 1845, and the short-lived Aerial Navigation Company.
An exhibition at the Rufus Porter Museum through October 12 asks whether Porter, indisputably a creative genius, was influenced by others.
“Young Rufus Porter: The Art World Beckoning” presents work by artists whose paths may have crossed that of the New England native early in his career, inspiring him to graduate from painting portraits in 1815 to creating the landscape murals for which he is best known in 1822.
Folk art authority Jean Lipman was the first to document Porter’s myriad talents. Based on discoveries she made in the 1930s, she wrote a biography of the artist in the 1940s and followed with her books Rufus Porter, Yankee Pioneer in 1968 and Rufus Porter Rediscovered in 1980. As demonstrated by the present exhibition, research on the life of this extraordinary American continues.
Born in West Boxford, Mass., Porter moved with his family in 1801 to Bridgton, a newly settled town in western Maine. He grew up there among the lakes and mountain views seen portrayed in his wall murals. Sharing his life story has become one mission of the Rufus Porter Museum, founded in Bridgton in 2005. The museum’s current exhibit focuses on what might have inspired Porter to train first as a decorative house painter under Marcus Quincy in Portland, Maine, by 1810 and to begin painting miniature portraits about 1815.
The museum displays a large selection of miniatures illustrating Porter’s progressive development as a portraitist from 1817 to 1840, when he became more focused on pursuing a journalistic and publishing career promoting his many inventions, including his flying machine “aeroport.”
Although no journals of his travels and his achievements are known, Porter wrote A Selection of Valuable and Curious Arts and Interesting Experiments in 1825, an instructional book for the arts with 100 “receipts” — the period term for recipes — including how to paint a miniature portrait and a landscape wall mural. The popular book went into multiple editions in two years.
Since no documentation has been found concerning what motivated Porter to pursue a career in the arts, I, in my role as volunteer curator, began to study the travels he undertook between 1819 and 1823, when he first walked from Portland to Harrisonburg, Va., stopping in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. (See Painted Rooms of Rhode Island, Colonial and Federal by Ann Eckert Brown, Spring Green Books in cooperation with the Connecticut Press, 2012.)
Porter returned to Maine pulling a camera obscura, a device that aided drawing, on his cart. He began his career as an itinerant artist painting portraits and cutting silhouettes. By 1822, when he advertised in the Providence Journal of Rhode Island, he was ornamenting the interiors of private homes with landscape murals painted on plaster walls.
According to Lipman, Porter traveled by stagecoach from New York to Philadelphia in 1823. Who he saw or what he did on these trips is unknown, but he was undoubtedly aware of some of the leading painters of the day, including John Brewster Jr, who lived in Buxton, Maine, just 30 miles from Bridgton; Michele Felice Corne of Boston and Rhode Island; and the Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale, who founded the Peale Museum and the Academy of Fine Arts.
The exhibition includes examples of work by these artists, as well as a map, created by the museum’s graduate interns Mollie Fullerton and Kirsten Swarz, illustrating where Porter may have encountered his colleagues.
A life-size portrait surfaced at the Fryeburg Academy that depicts Reverend Nathaniel Porter, a fourth cousin to Porter and a founding trustee of that institution. Rufus Porter may have seen the portrait — possibly painted by the school’s preceptor, Amos Jones Cook — when he attended the school in 1804. Painted about 1816, an unsigned miniature, probably depicting Reverend Porter when in his 70s, bears Rufus Porter’s stylistic hallmarks in the artist’s treatment of the sitter’s eyes, ears, mouth and neck.
In August 2013, Northeast Auctions sold five miniature portraits tentatively identified as members of the Greenleaf-Plummer-Bartlett family. Art historian Deborah M. Child subsequently identified the sitters as William Greenleaf Jr of Haverhill, Mass., three of his children and a son-in-law. (For more on approaches to documenting Porter and identifying his clientele, see “Thank Goodness for Granny Notes: Rufus Porter and his New England Sitters,” Summer/Autumn 2010 (Vol. XI, issue 4) Antiques and Fine Art Magazine, pgs 190–195.) The portraits date to Porter’s time in Haverhill.
The artist advertised in the Essex Patriot that, while residing at Brown’s Tavern between March 21 and April 21, 1821, he was available to paint “correct likenesses.” Since Greenleaf’s eldest daughter, Eliza, wife of Hiram Plummer, died in October 1821, these portraits can be firmly dated. Thus, they demonstrate the artistic progression made by the artist since his trip down the East Coast two years before.
Also on exhibit is the famous 1825 marital double portrait of Jonathan Smith and his wife, Pamela, of Chelmsford, Mass.; four portraits of the Flagg family of Massachusetts, considered by some to be the best examples of his miniatures in the 1830s; and several frontal portraits that date to around 1840, shortly before Porter seems to have stopped painting portraits and wall murals.
The museum recently asked Dr Jennifer Mass, a Winterthur Museum conservator, to analyze the paints used on six portraits by Rufus Porter. Mass concluded that the artist’s palette consisted of vermilion, red lead and iron-oxide red; Prussian blue and azurite; umbers; chalk and lead white; chrome yellow and yellow ochre; and black ink and bone black.
“It is notable,” wrote Mass, “that Porter, as a chemist, was an early adopter/experimenter with chrome-yellow pigment, a bright, lemony yellow introduced in the first decade of the Nineteenth Century. In general, Porter employs an inorganic palette of mineral pigments, devoid of red lakes, indigo or yellow dyes. This lends a jewel-like quality to his work and has resulted in their overall good state of preservation.”
Mass continued, “His working methods show him to be a highly capable artist, using Prussian blue to create both opaque and translucent blue colors as well as pale and dark blue hues. He achieves this by adding lead white when opacity and lighter shades are desired, and by adding bone black when darker blue shadows are needed. He also experiments with his blacks, sometimes using black ink, and other times using bone black or even mixtures containing umber and vermilion to obtain richer and more complex hues.”
A future analysis of paints used in the set of murals on exhibit from the Dr Francis Howe home in Westwood, Mass., and the newly donated set of murals done by Jonathan D. Poor in 1840 for the Dr Norton home in East Baldwin, Maine, is planned by the museum and will add to the knowledge of paint composition available at the time. Poor was the nephew and protégé of Rufus Porter, and the artist primarily associated with the Porter school of landscape painting. As documented by Linda Carter Lefko and Jane E. Radcliffe in their 2011 book, Folk Art Murals of the Rufus Porter School: New England Landscapes 1825–1845, a great majority of the murals found in Maine that were previously attributed to Rufus Porter are by Poor.
Another important object related to Porter was auctioned by Christie’s in January 2014 and is a promised gift to the museum. Called the Garvin House fireboard, it originated in the James Garvin house in Greenfield, N.H., circa 1825, where murals attributed to Porter were found.
The Rufus Porter Museum is planning to build a facility in downtown Bridgton large enough to house both sets of murals and is studying the best practice for having its wall murals conserved prior to installation. The organizers hope that, when complete, the new museum will become the center for the study of painted wall decoration in New England in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.
Tipped off by private owners who approached the Rufus Porter Museum, Lefko and Radcliffe have documented two dozen newly discovered murals. The museum, a clearinghouse for information on Porter and his circle, maintains online resources for scholars and other researchers. These resources include a guide to identifying Porter paintings, characteristic motifs that appear in his work and advice on the care and conservation of murals. The museum’s ability to collect and maintain resources for researchers will be greatly enhanced by the opening of its new center.
A symposium, “The Painted Past in New England: Architectural, Plaster and Paint Conservation,” is tentatively planned for the spring of 2016.
The Rufus Porter Museum is at 67 North High Street. Seasonal hours are Wednesday to Saturday from noon to 4 pm. The museum may be viewed by appointment by out of town visitors who call ahead.
For information, www.rufusportermuseum.org or 207-647-2828.
Julie Lindberg is a dealer and collector of American folk art and a founder of the Rufus Porter Museum. She currently serves on the museum’s board of directors. Rufus Porter grew up three miles from her Maine summer home on Highland Lake. She thanks Deborah Childs, Linda Carter Lefko, Jennifer Mass and Jane Radcliffe for their contributions to this article.
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