Rufus Porter (1792-1884), the nineteenth-century American muralist, became part of The Lost Artist by happenstance. Prior to writing the book, I’d never heard of him. Though I suspect I might have seen his work somewhere, maybe, maybe not. And this is what intrigues me about the writing process, when you begin a book, you just never know who’ll end up in it.
I learned about Rufus Porter while researching contemporary art restorers who specialized in mural restoration. I’d seen an episode of “This Old House” where a historically valuable mural had been restored after it was discovered under layers and layers of wallpaper. So I knew that it was possible to do this.
That episode confirmed my concept for the book: that the secret to finding a sixteenth-century American art treasure is hidden in four murals. The murals are concealed under about one-hundred-and seventy-five years of wallpaper and paint. I was embarking on a story told not only in words but also in images. It was vital that I understood mural restoration and was familiar with nineteenth-century American murals.
My online search led me to a Massachusetts art restorer who was in the process of uncovering and restoring a Rufus Porter mural that had been painted on the walls of a house in the nineteenth century. The photo of her perched on a ladder painstakingly removing the wallpaper stayed in my mind, as did the splendid Porter mural she was restoring. I think the article said something about wisps of clouds being revealed.
Before calling her for an interview, I began reading books and articles about Rufus Porter. What I discovered about this extraordinary man gave me a window into a little known way of life, a glimpse into the spirit of a newly formed country, and a way to make the nineteenth-century section of The Lost Artist come alive.
From 1819–1845, Rufus Porter’s wandered up and down the east coast from New England to Virginia plying his trade as an itinerant painter. He traveled on foot, carrying nothing but his painter’s kit on his back. Porter would arrive in a town, set up a makeshift studio, often in a tavern, and hand out leaflets advertising his services as a portraitist and a mural painter.
In Jean Lipman’s book, Rufus Porter: Yankee Pioneer (p.5), she reproduces one of Porter’s advertisements:
“PAINTING. The Subscriber respectfully informs the Ladies and Gentlemen of Haverhill and its vicinity, that he continues to paint correct Likenesses in full Colours for two Dollars at his room at Mr. Brown’s Tavern, where he will remain two to three Days longer. (No Likeness, no Pay.) Those who request it will be waited on at their respective places of abode. RUFUS PORTER Haverhill, March 31, 1821.”
At a time when the wealthy were decorating their walls with imported wallpaper, Porter offered a more affordable alternative for Americas who couldn’t afford the expensive wallpaper but very much craved the finer things.
He was a persuasive salesman, telling the tavern owners and farmers that mural art was better because wallpaper “is apt to get torn off, and often affords behind it a resting place for various kinds of house insects (Lipman, p. 94).
Taverns not only supplied him with an income, but often he’d paint tavern walls and floors for room and board. In early-to mid-nineteenth-century America, taverns were a stopping place for peddlers of all kinds. The taverns offered good food and good company. A typical tavern supper consisted of beefsteaks, broiled fowl, ham, cold turkey, toast broiled in melted butter, waffles, tea, coffee, and rum. The tavern customers were a democratic blend of local townspeople and peddlers like Porter, who believed that “to sit by a tavern hearth in those days was to have an ear to the world,” (Lipman, p. 69).
The descriptions of the tavern scenes in The Lost Artist owe much to the murals Porter painted at the Coburn Tavern in East Pepperell, Massachusetts and the Prescott Tavern in East Jaffrey, New Hampshire. The wide expansiveness of the Coburn Tavern’s ballroom, which could accommodate one hundred dancers, showed his method of painting almost every wall surface with his signature trees. The Prescott Tavern sported one of Porter’s quixotic elements, a Vesuvius-like mountain, attesting to his notion of following his own artistic path.
Muralist and Teacher
Early on Porter eschewed artistic academic goals, as well as European models, adopting instead a more democratic, more American approach to art. He was a firm believer in painting for pleasure.
In the Howe House countryside mural 1838, you can see some of the earmarks of his work: massive trees in the foreground, orderly composition of the farm land, billowing round clouds, and bright colors, just to name a few.
To look at this Porter farm scene is to get a glimpse into nineteenth-century American agrarian life—sylvan, picturesque, serene. The inspiration for one of the murals in The Lost Artist derived from various Porter farm scenes.
In one of Porter’s articles on landscape painting he stated: “There can be no scenery found in the world which presents a more gay and lively appearance in a painting than an American farm, on a swell of land, and with various colored fields well arranged.”
Another scene favored by Porter was a harbor view. The Water Wall from the Howe House brims with energy, visually capturing the spirit of a new country on the move, optimistic, heady—basking in its freedom. Again, another mural in The Lost Artist was loosely based on Porter’s harbor view murals.
Porter’s method was to work quickly, using sponges and stencils when needed, and to paint as he wished, encouraging others to do the same. He was more than happy to teach the farmers and their wives how to paint. He believed that everyone could draw and to support that belief he wrote and published Curious Arts (1825) one of the most read of the early art instruction books. The book was simple and easy to read, fostering early American arts and crafts (Lipman, p. 77, 81).
And in that democratic spirit Porter often traveled with assistants, the most famous of whom was his nephew Jonathan D. Poor. Porter taught his assistants mural painting and they, in turn, helped with the execution of the murals.
Rufus Porter was a true find for this author. His embodiment of the nineteenth-century idea of the restless, adventuresome young America helped me envision this time. His murals, so vivid and full of detail, made describing the book’s murals that much easier.
Though the book’s main narrative occurs in present day, the nineteenth-century section was vital to telling the story of the lost artist.
Rufus Porter: Yankee Pioneer, Jean Lipman
Recommended Reading: Folk Art Murals of the Rufus Porter School: New England Landscapes 1825-1845, Jane Radcliffe and Linda Carter Lefko