Early American Painter
Suzanne Carroll Korn
Rufus Porter was a landscape muralist… Porter painted his folk art scenic landscape murals between the years 1822 and 1845.
Before Porter took up mural painting he was a portrait painter. Around 1819 Rufus Porter walked from Boston to Virginia…pushing a cart that he built to carry all his portrait painting equipment. How extraordinary!
But Rufus Porter was extraordinary in many ways. He was a man of many talents. At various points in his amazing life he made his living as a musician (he played both fife and fiddle), a schoolmaster, and a house and sign painter. He was an art instructor, he was a dance instructor, a prolific inventor, a journalist, author, scientist and he was the founder, editor and publisher of Scientific American magazine. Interestingly enough, Rufus Porter’s only formal education was a 6 month semester at the Fryeburg Academy in Fryeburge Maine when he was 12 years of age.
But it was with his art, where he touched the lives of rural New Englanders in a truly special way. He covered their walls with peaceful and serene New England landscapes and colorful vistas of rural life that spoke to the pride in America and the bounty of this young and plentiful country. Even during the coldest and darkest of New England winters, his idyllic landscapes would brightened homes and hearts with the promise of summer.
Porter had a very distinct style of painting scenic landscapes. In 1825, Porter published a little book called “Curious Arts,” and in this book he shares in great detail his formulas and methodologies for creating such a landscape mural. Today, anyone who might be interested in learning how to paint in the tradition of Rufus Porter would find Porter’s instruction in “Curious Arts” an informative guide. Early American decoration researcher, Jean Lipman, called Porter an “Art Instructor to the People”!
Porter said: “Every object must be painted larger or smaller according to the distance at which it is represented. This gives the allusion of distance to a flat wall surface”. Stunning changes in perspective from huge trees rising out of the foreground to distant scenes of harbors, pastures and villages, is one of the important characteristics of a Porter mural. In addition to the scale of objects in various distances, we see other "trademark" characteristics and motifs in a Porter mural such as billowing, rounded clouds that rise in the distance, sharp shading on the darkened sides of houses, trees, and shrubbery and high-lights on the other side of these objects, often matching the light source in the room, and his masterful use of color, perfectly mimicking the colors we see when we view a landscape or scenic vista. The focal point of a Porter mural is usually a harbor scene resplendent with islands and sailboats or a cultivated hillside village scene with stenciled houses, hedgerows and sometimes farm animals.
Around 1812, when young Rufus was a fife and drummer in the Portland Light Infantry, he trained many days on Munjoy Hill. At that time, the hillside was planted with magnificent feather duster Elm trees, which surrounded his view of the harbor. Some believe that the expansive harbor scenes that he would later paint on the walls of homes, inns, and taverns were inspired by his memory of those days spent on Munjoy Hill overlooking Casco bay with its numerous islands and sailboats.
This painting, "Porter’s View II",
is one of my interpretation of Porter’s
view from Munjoy Hill, Portland Maine
Moses Eaton Jr. is the 19th century stenciler that we know the most about, and his artistic legacy reaches far and wide across New England. Like most in rural New England during the 1800's, Moses Eaton Jr. was a farmer. However, he had a real flair for design and color…and this farmer left a lasting impression on the history of decorative arts in America. He brought the beauty and color of summer into cold and dark interiors. You might be familiar with some of Eaton’s folk-art designs. Designs were usually borrowed from the beauty of nature, and some of the designs were symbolic of basic virtues and values. The weeping willow tree was symbolic of an everlasting or long life. The pineapple was the colonial symbol for hospitality or "Welcome!" and the oak leaf represented strength and loyalty. The flower basket represented friendship. Designs like the flower spray with a heart was symbolic of love and devotion. The old time stencilers would incorporate hearts into their designs in honor of newlyweds residing in the household.
For additional information on early American stenciling and Moses Eaton, Jr., please visit my other website: Vintage New England Stenciling
The folk art legacy of Rufus Porter and Moses Eaton, Jr. reaches far and wide across New England and this legacy is a beauty to behold. The history of decorative arts in America has a colorful chapter between the years of 1790-1840, when itinerant artisans, like Rufus Porter and Moses Eaton, Jr. traveled the country roads of rural NE, decorating the walls of homes, inns, and taverns along the way. This period of time was known as the Federal Period.
Federal Period America was time of great change, and it was an exciting time in the history of our young nation. During this time, thousands of miles of new and improved roads were created. These improvements allowed itinerant artisans, peddlers, professionals, and other individuals selling goods and services to gain quicker and easier access to the once isolated villages and farming communities throughout New England.
The cast of characters that made their living roaming the highways and byways in 19th century New England was an intriguing lot! You could find Yankee peddlers selling every sort of useful item. You could also find traveling troupes of entertainers, magicians, circus acts, and jugglers. And there were doctors and lawyers and singing and dance instructors. The itinerant artisans would also be included in this cast of characters…including muralists, portrait painters, and stencilers. These roaming artisans were all selling their unique ability to enhance the living spaces of rural New Englanders.
Also during this time, people began focusing things that would make their lives more enjoyable and more comfortable. They had a desire to bring design, color and pattern into their lives. They wanted to enhance their living spaces and to make the dark interiors of their homes brighter and more pleasing. Beautiful handmade wallpaper, which was all imported from Europe at the time, offered a means to this end. However, most rural New Englanders could simply not afford such a luxury.
But thanks to the invaluable service provided by the old time stencilers, like Moses Eaton, Jr. and the scenic landscape muralists, like Rufus Porter, rural New Englanders were able to achieve their desires for brightening and enhancing their homesteads.
Website created by: Suzanne C. Korn
In the 1820’s Porter began traveling the backroads of New England with his nephew, Jonathan D. Poor (1772-1864). It is believed that Poor took on as his uncle's apprentice, learning the trade of portrait painter and muralist. Jonathan Poor was a prolific and proficient practitioner of his uncle's formulas and methodologies for painting scenic landscape murals. However, Jonathan took his uncle’s instruction for painting wall murals and made them his own! The wall murals attributed to Poor provide a delightful quaintness, eccentricity, and complexity not typically seen in a mural painted by his uncle. Poor added special details to his murals, revealing his own personality and pursuits.
Recently, the most comprehensive research done to date on Rufus Porter and his style of painting landscape murals was published. It is called“Folk Art Murals of the Rufus Porter School - New England Landscapes 1825-1845” and it is the culmination of 40 years of research by authors Linda Carter Lefko and Jane E. Radcliffe. The Rufus Porter School of Landscape painting refers to the work by several artisans who followed the specific style of painting scenic walls as published by Porter in his “Curious Arts” in 1825.
Lefko and Radcliffe were the first researchers to distinguish the stylistic differences between the two primary artists of the Rufus Porter School of landscape murals, Rufus Porter and his nephew, Jonathan D. Poor. By studying their signed murals, they have learned about the different characteristics and distinguishing styles of each. They conclude from their research that many of the unsigned murals once attributed to Rufus Porter are actually the work of his nephew and protégé, Jonathan D. Poor! I would highly recommend their book if you would like to learn more about this fascinating and groundbreaking research.