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Living with Rufus Porter: Muralist

By Mark Sullivan Share:

He was a Yankee “Renaissance Man.” Before going on to found Scientific American magazine and to invent prototypes of the Colt revolver and the helium-filled airship, the visionary inventor and folk artist Rufus Porter (1792-1884) wandered New England in the 1830s painting wall murals in homes and inns.

Recognizable by their fanciful sailing ships, waterways, elms and creeping ferns, Porter’s surviving murals are highly prized as examples of primitive art from the early years of the American republic.


To those who live with his murals on their walls, Porter is an old friend, almost a member of the family — one whose creative legacy they, the homeowners, are happy to steward.


“We’re temporary caretakers,” says Sue Dowd, whose early 19th-century home at 436 Main St., in Amesbury, Mass., features Rufus Porter murals in the front hallway, up the staircase, and on the second-floor landing. Says husband Jim: “We’re just passing through.”


The Dowds live with their two children, ages 12 and 10, and their Gordon setter in the circa 1809 Capt. Abraham Colby House, a Georgian home in Point Shore, a historic boat-building neighborhood on the Merrimack River.


The murals in the house are unsigned but have been authenticated as Porter’s work, dating to the 1830s.


An idyllic waterscape on the walls of the foyer includes islands, a sailboat and a waterfall, as well as a steamboat, “The Albany,” chugging past. “I grew up on the Hudson and it’s not dissimilar to a scene you’d see,” said Jim Dowd.


Up the staircase, riders on horseback climb a hill along the stairs at almost a 45-degree angle. In the hallway upstairs, trees on a long wall are said to illustrate Porter’s “lacy elm” technique.


“We’ve been told they’re in great condition considering their age,” said Sue Dowd. “People have told us, don’t touch them, don’t even restore them. They haven’t been touched since we bought the house.”


Before the Dowds moved in 13 years ago, the Bartlett family owned the house for about a hundred years. Before that, the home belonged to the Colbys, who built it.


Later this year, the home will be included on a historic house tour in the neighborhood. “We want people to enjoy the murals,” Sue Dowd said. “We don’t want them closed off.


“They are meant to be lived with,” she said. That said, sharing living space with a de facto gallery of rare American folk art calls for certain considerations: “When the children were young, we had to keep them out of the front hallway with their crayons,” she said, with a smile.


Of the artist, Sue Dowd said: “I’ve heard he was a very eccentric, very interesting person.”


Certainly Rufus Porter was remarkable. He was “one of the few men in American history [who] can honestly be given the title ‘Renaissance Man,’ writes Sandra Paetznick in Rufus Porter, New England Muralist: An Annotated Bibliography (1998).


A farmer’s son from West Boxford, Mass., whose higher education consisted of six months at Fryeburg Academy in Maine when he was 12, Porter at the age of 23 “followed what would later develop into an insatiable desire for travel…by journeying from town to town working as a musician, a dance instructor, a painter of houses, signs, gunboats, sleighs and drums; he built wind-mills, gristmills, and later taught school and portrait painting,” Paetznick writes. “All of these trades laid the groundwork for Porter’s venture, in the 1830’s-1840’s, as a decorative artist in the New England region.”


The last 45 years of his life Porter devoted to inventing, teaching and writing, Paetznick writes.


Porter founded and edited several scientific journals, including Scientific American; secured patents for 23 of his inventions, including a design for an automobile, an elevated train, the revolving rifle, and a passenger plane; and also found time to father 16 children by two wives.


Of Porter’s many achievements “none had the impact on redefining the direction of American decorative painting quite like his New England murals,” Paetznick writes. For his designs, unique in using the surrounding New England countryside as a backdrop, he borrowed techniques common in furniture decoration such as stenciling and stippling. Later, in Scientific American, he published detailed descriptions of his mural-painting approach, with step-by-step instructions for laying out the design, perspective, colors used, creating foliage, and using stencils.


Unfortunately, in the years that followed, many of his murals would be obscured. “Fewer and fewer of his murals exist today due to demolition, painting, wallpaper and careless restoration attempts,” Paetznick writes.


Environmental damage also has taken a toll. “Moisture is the greatest hazard besides man,” says Linda Carter Lefko, author with Jane E. Radcliffe of Folk Art Murals of the Rufus Porter School: New England Landscapes, 1825-1845.


What is called the Rufus Porter School includes works by his nephew Jonathan D. Poor, who is believed to have traveled with Porter around New England, particularly New Hampshire, and who now is credited for murals in Maine formerly attributed to Porter.


Twenty-seven walls believed to have been done by Porter are documented in Massachusetts, says Lefko, all of them bearing the same identifying characteristic motifs: a water wall with large elm in the foreground, an island, fencing with great detail, and attention to light source; stenciled buildings; tree foliage style; and frequently, painting in monochrome, a difficult technique. Three of these walls are the only ones known to actually bear Porter’s signature, she said.


In Amesbury, the Dowds like to engage in a bit of conjecture about Porter’s time in Amesbury. Original homeowner Colby, a sea captain and banker, was a prosperous figure who left money in his will to pay for all the sidewalks in the neighborhood, Jim Dowd said, and whose patronage likely was welcomed by the itinerant muralist who used commissions from his paintings to fund his travels.


The Dowds wonder if Rufus Porter lived in the house while painting the walls. Perhaps he had dinner in their kitchen. Says Sue Dowd: “If these walls could talk.”



Q&A: Samantha Scarf, Associate Director

Rufus Porter Museum, Bridgton, Maine

The Rufus Porter Museum in Bridgton, Maine, opened in 2005 with a mission to bring to life the world and inspiring works of its namesake, the 19th-century artist and inventor. Associate Director Samantha Scarf speaks with Antique Homes Magazine about the museum’s endeavors to celebrate the life and times of a remarkably creative American genius.


Q:  For a lover of primitive folk art, is discovering a Rufus Porter mural like finding buried treasure? 

A:  “The discovery of a Rufus Porter mural is like discovering buried treasure for some people. We have visitors to the museum who say they have old homes and wish they found murals hidden behind wallpaper. Some even have contemporary artists paint murals in the style of Rufus Porter in various parts of their homes.”

Q:  Can you recount a discovery story?

A:  “Last fall we had a call from a gentleman from Massachusetts. He discovered murals in the upstairs bedroom his house and sent us photographs. The murals turned out to be early examples of Porter’s work and were monochromatic. It was exciting to see the photographs.”

Q:  Who were some of the associated muralists of the era? 

A:  “The Rufus Porter School encompasses the works of Rufus Porter, his son Stephen Twombly and his nephew Jonathan Poor. Jonathan Poor is known to have painted primarily in Maine and the majority of the murals discovered in Maine are attributed to him. The museum owns a set of wall murals by Poor, from a house in East Baldwin that were donated to the museum in 2010.”

Q:  Why is the work of Rufus Porter considered particularly significant? 

A:  “Porter’s work is significant because he did not have the traditional ‘fine art’ training that artists of his time period received. Yet his work still has meaning and relevance today. He also shared his techniques with the world. He published various articles on painting wall murals in Scientific American (which he founded) and published A Select Collection of Valuable Curious Arts and Interesting Experiments that outlines how to make paints and the techniques of painting a wall mural. Porter wanted to make life better for people: he made improvements to farming equipment, designed a way to move a house and worked for many years on developing an airship that would allow people to travel longer distances, faster. He also made art an escape from the drab real world, available to the middle class.”

Q:  Is it possible there are still Rufus Porter murals waiting to be discovered?

A:  “Because of Rufus Porter’s poor record keeping and a lack of personal documents from Porter, it is hard to determine how many murals he actually painted. It is entirely possible that there are murals we are unaware of. As wallpaper became readily available, people could have covered the murals or painted over them.”

Q:  What do you do if you find what may be a Rufus Porter under the wallpaper in your living room? 

A:  “Stop taking the wallpaper down and call the Rufus Porter Museum. The museum can put you in contact with experts in mural preservation. The removal of wallpaper can damage the mural and strip layers of paint and plaster. There are techniques to remove the wallpaper that won’t damage the murals [or that will] cause minimal damage. Also: document the walls, take photographs and do research into the history of the house. This information can prove helpful in determining who the artist was and when they were painted.”


The Rufus Porter Museum, at 67 North High St., Bridgton, Maine, features wall murals and miniature portraits painted by Rufus Porter, as well as wall murals by Porter’s nephew Jonathan D. Poor, and works by other prominent New England folk artists. The museum is open seasonally, this year from June 3o through Oct. 10.

Closed for the season. Open by appointment with 48 hr. advance reservation.

Free – Members
Free – Children 12 and under
Free – Active military and family

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