Rufus Porter is remembered by New England historians as the “Yankee Da Vinci.”
The 19th-century artist who grew up in western Maine popularized painting landscape murals as decoration for the dry plaster walls common in early New England life. And after years of fundraising, the Rufus Porter Museum of Art and Ingenuity in Bridgton is now expanding to show off dozens of murals from one of his most prominent students.
Porter was born in Massachusetts in 1792, and later moved to what is now Baldwin, Maine, and then to Bridgton as a young child. With no formal training, he set out creating murals of New England landscapes familiar to his patrons: scenes of the Portland harbor and of rolling farmlands and forests.
Beth Cossey, the museum board’s vice president, said the scenes can be especially comforting in the winter, when the snow piles halfway up the windows.
“If you walk down into the water’s edge, you feel like you’re in a beautiful piece of scenery,” she said. “It’s the trees, the birds, the boats, they all come together to look like a good piece of work.”
Porter was an itinerant folk artist, who would travel about painting murals and small portraits in exchange for room and board and a little money. Having painted walls was a sign of wealth, but Cossey said there were other ways to get a Porter original.
“If you didn’t have a dollar, he would cut a silhouette for 20 cents,” she said.
And Cossey said Porter was more than just a painter.
“He was a musician, he was an innovator,” she said. “He was the influencer of the 19th century.”
Another Porter museum building has examples of just a few of Porter’s 71 known inventions: A corn shucker. An air locomotive, similar to a zeppelin. The revolving rifle, which he sold to Samuel Colt of the Colt Manufacturing Co. And a copy of the Scientific American magazine, which Porter founded and is still in circulation today. But Porter is still best known for his murals.
But it’s not always easy to tell if you have a Porter original, because he didn’t sign many of his works, said Jane Radcliffe, the president of Hallowell-based Paint Wall Preservation Center.
“There were several other artists who were doing the same sort of thing.”
Radcliffe, an art historian who’s written a book about Porter, said Porter originals are hard to find, because he only signed a few of his works. And when wallpaper came into fashion in the late 1800s, many of his landscapes were covered over after wallpaper became popular during the Victorian period.
“So we know of, we knew of a number of examples, but more of them are being found just about every day, it seems,” she said.
Porter’s students included his nephew Jonathan D. Poor, who Radcliffe said painted most of the murals found in Maine. The medium is named after Porter, but it will be Poor who is on display when the new building in Bridgton opens to the public next summer. The series of wall paintings were gifted to the museum in 2011 and have sat in storage for years as the museum worked to raise money for a historic 19th-century barn to house them in.
The barn will center on a hallway and two rooms, similar to the ones where Poor’s murals were originally found. The set up, while modest, will allow visitors to experience the art as it was meant to be seen — in a person’s home.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.