Rufus Porter


Porter was a nineteenth-century painter, inventor, fiddler, teacher, journalist, and publisher whose active mind and diverse interests seemed to exemplify the American spirit of entrepreneurship, progress, and improvement. Porter was fascinated by time and labor-saving approaches in all his endeavors, whether it was the construction of acamera obscura to enable him to take profiles in fifteen minutes, or the design of a passenger “flying ship” that could travel up to one hundred miles per hour. Today heis recognized for establishing an influential style of landscape painting on walls that appears in almost two hundred interiors throughout New England, but Porter remained relatively obscure as an artist in his own lifetime. A lengthy obituary and biographical sketch that was published in the September 6, 1884, issue of Scientific American, a publication he founded in 1845, remained the only source of information about the artist until 1940, when his life and achievements attracted the interest of scholar and collector Jean Lipman (1909–1998). Her work revealed Porter as an early American visionary whose restless and inquisitive spirit anticipated theincreasing tempo and innovations of the modern world.Porter was born in West Boxford, Massachusetts, and moved with his family to Flintwood (now Baldwin), Maine, in 1801. After farming, playing the fiddle, andapprenticing briefly with his brother as a shoemaker, he walked to Portland, Maine, in 1810, thereby starting a pattern of itinerancy that was to become a lifetimehallmark of his character and movements. In Portland, Porter found work as a house and sign painter, learning many of the decorative techniques that he later appliedto wall painting, but his activities ranged from playing the fife for military companies, and the violin for dancing parties, to teaching drumming and drum painting, paintinggunboats and sleighs, and joining the Portland Light Infantry. From 1815, when he married, until about 1840, Porter worked as an itinerant artist, and began painting portraits first in New Haven, Connecticut, and then throughout New England and as far south as Virginia. There are no records for the years between 1817 and 1819, a period when he may have joined thecrew of a trading ship bound for the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii.About 1819 Porter produced a handbill that outlined the types of portraits he offered and their associated costs. Beneath a woodblock print in the style of a typical portrait are listed: cut profiles, watercolor profiles, watercolor full-face portraits, and miniatures on ivory, the prices ranging from twenty cents to eight dollars. On the basis of two family portraits painted about the same time, a group of at least fifty watercolor portraits are now attributed to Porter. Most are half-length poses with adistinctive treatment of outlined eyes and ears and stippled facial modeling. Although he offered full-face portraits in this early handbill, known examples date fromabout 1830–1835.Porter once again traveled through New England beginning in 1824, and this was the year he began to paint walls in a combination of freehand and stenciling. Someof his early work may have been completed in partnership with Moses Eaton Jr. (1796–1886), a prolific decorative painter known for his stenciled designs. Later,Porter also worked with his nephew, Jonathan D.Poor, and with his own son, Stephen Twombley Porter. In 1825 Porter published the first of five editions of A Select Collection of Approved, Genuine, Secret, and Modern Receipts, For the Preparation and Execution of Various Valuable and Curious Arts, a book of instructions on a variety of decorative-art techniques, including a precise system of landscape painting on walls based on scale, perspective, color, and detail. In adeparture from the taste for imported wallpapers picturing exotic foreign climes, Porter was instead a proponent of the American scene, and simplified his designs toessential elements, with the suggestion that “in finishing up scenery, it is neither necessary nor expedient, in all cases, to imitate nature.” His instructions were intended toenable even an amateur painter to complete the “four walls of a parlor in five hours,” and create a nuanced landscape in four planes receding into the distance.Wall painting remained Porter’s primary occupation until the 1840s, when he founded and published New York Mechanic, American Mechanic, and Scientific American. Until his death in 1884, Porter’s attention was focused on promoting his plans for “aerial navigation” and other mechanical inventions, many of which promoted improved methods of transport.