Decorative Arts – the Innovations of a Progressive Artist Named Rufus Porter

Rufus Porter (1792-1884) is a significant and innovative New England artist who lived during the late nineteenth century. Born in Massachusetts and one of six children, his family moved to Maine when he was nine years old. At the age of twelve, he attended the prestigious Fryeberg Academy, founded by his uncle Nathanial. Porter attended this one-room schoolhouse for only six months, studying the classics and the violin.

It is theorized that the lack of extended formal instruction contributed to both his independence and progressive thinking.

The Early Years

Although not much is known about his childhood, it appears that even as a young boy Rufus Porter divided his time between responsibility, fiddling, and creating simple inventions. In 1810, when he was eighteen years old, he learned the trade of house painting. In addition to grinding and mixing paints, he learned how to construct brushes. Porter began his painting career embellishing floors and woodwork with decorative motifs, and duplicating the grained and marbleized designs that were fashionable at the time.

Parlor detail, south wall, Kent house

Parlor detail, south wall, Kent house

Traveler and Pioneer

During 1819-1823, Rufus Porter traveled from Connecticut to Harrisonburg, Virginia. Along the way he frequently stopped to visit museums and to meet other artists. During this trip, he learned the art of silhouette cutting and became interested in the method of using an optical device called the camera obscura. The camera obscura(info here) is an invention which predates Leonardo DaVinci and is used to re-create an image on a screen, preserving both the color and the perspective of the original.

In 1820, Porter built his own portable version of this drawing tool. In addition, he published a practical guide for creating a portable version of this early camera. It is one of the contributing designs in the development of modem photography. When he returned from his four-year journey, Porter began painting portraits using this technique. These portraits were mostly painted in profile, and depict the men with brushed-up hair. Rufus Porter was considered a pioneer in the field of popular portrait painting – a decade ahead of his time. By 1824 his interest switched from portraits to landscapes and murals. Because insects often infested the wheat paste used for wallpaper, as well as the expense of imported papers, painted murals grew in appeal. Porter traveled throughout New England, many times working for room and board, painting elaborate landscape murals in taverns and private homes.




His murals reflected much of what he saw in his travels: ships and Hawaiian scenery from his trading voyages, the militia marching from his time in the Portland Guard, and the pastoral countryside from his travels through the Northeast. The designs were filled with huge trees, harbor scenes, and mountains with entire villages stenciled over the scenery. Porter’s murals are distinctive, incorporating a vivid palette and broad, open brushstrokes. His designs were considered unique because they were of a larger scale than others of his time. Because most of his murals were unsigned, it was not until the mid-1930s that his body of work was authenticated. Much of his work was due to fire, demolition, or paint and wallpaper— however, Rufus Porter murals are still being uncovered today, as many of the New England homes built in the early 1800s are renovated and restored to their original splendor.

Parlor, Eaton house

Parlor, Eaton house

Teacher and Publisher

Bed chamber, south wall detail, Kent house

Bed chamber, south wall detail, Kent house

Rufus Porter began teaching decorative arts, with his first student being his nephew, Joe, who learned the art of mural painting during his travels as his uncle’s apprentice. Porter then established the Porter’s school of landscape painters, which grew dramatically during the 1830s. Joe went on to be the most productive member of the school and was known to have decorated many homes in Bridgton, Maine, and the surrounding towns. Porter and his students painted hundreds of murals in New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts.

His penchant for teaching continued and grew into publishing how-to books. A special contribution to the field of decorative arts is his practical and popular anthology of techniques known as A Select Collection of Valuable and Curious Arts, and Interesting Experiments. Best described as a fascinating “recipe” book of early painting and embellishment techniques, it also contains such fascinating techniques as how to make shellac varnish for japanning; how to make strong, waterproof glue; how to make gunpowder; and even how to make elastic varnish for umbrellas. Although other books of this type had been previously written by other authors, it is believed that Porter’s simplified explanations made this the most widely read book of its kind throughout New England. This compendium was so popular, it dramatically during the 1830s. Joe went on to be the most productive member of the school and was known to have decorated many homes in Bridgton, Maine, and the surrounding towns. Porter and his students painted hundreds of murals in New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts.

Parlor, New Hampshire house

Parlor, New Hampshire house

His penchant for teaching continued and grew into publishing how-to books. A special contribution to the field of decorative arts is his practical and popular anthology of techniques known as A Select Collection of Valuable and Curious Arts, and Interesting Experiments. Best described as a fascinating “recipe” book of early painting and embellishment techniques, it also contains such fascinating techniques as how to make shellac varnish for japanning; how to make strong, waterproof glue; how to make gunpowder; and even how to make elastic varnish for umbrellas. Although other books of this type had been previously written by other authors, it is believed that Porter’s simplified explanations made this the most widely read book of its kind throughout New England. This compendium was so popular, it reached six printings!

Other published works Porter authored include a series of articles for the Scientific American, the magazine he founded in 1845. These articles, entitled “Landscape Painting on Walls of Rooms,” included step-by-step directions for the techniques one could use to re-create his murals. These instructions also included explanations of design, perspective, color, and using stencils. Porter strongly believed that, by following a logical sequence of steps, anyone could create a mural.

Parlor, Eaton house

Parlor, Eaton house

A Legend Lives On…

Rufus Porter is well recognized for his distinctive style of painting, which is still very popular today. He was signing his paintings with elegance, nowadays there are iron-on labels to help artists sign with style. His stencils and instructions are being used by muralists and decorative painters to create large murals and home decor pieces, and The Rufus Porter School of Wall Mural Painting exists today in video and DVD format ( available through MB Historic Decor). Also, the Rufus Porter Museum, located in Bridgton, Maine, is singularly devoted to his work and displays his vivid murals in the front parlor.

Rufus Porter was more than a traveling muralist, schoolmaster, and writer. Born during the presidency of George Washington, Porter’s genius spanned the appointment of twenty-one American presidents. Throughout his lifetime he remained unfettered by convention, inspired by the world in which he lived, and more devoted to the pursuit of invention rather than to prosperity.

Bed chamber, south wall detail, Kent house

Bed chamber, south wall detail, Kent house




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