THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

In the steps of Rufus Porter, Yankee original

Email|Print| Text size + By Sam Hooper Samuels
August 7, 2005

It's 10:30 a.m. in the lobby of Boston's busy Marriott Long Wharf Hotel. Elevators bing and bong. A businessman in tie and natty suspenders hunches over his laptop. Surgeons wearing name badges breeze through on their way to a medical conference downstairs. Nobody much notices the bland lobby artwork. Ceiling-high paintings of Boston's schooner fishermen. A scale model of an ocean liner. A portrait of the Marriott family founders.

One piece stands out. Set into one wall is a mural depicting a New England harbor scene. The artist who painted this sunset over shoreline, ships and trees around 1824 is not a household name but is acknowledged by the cognoscenti as a master of American primitive and folk art: Rufus Porter.

Small photos haven't prepared me for the scale and starkness of the mural before me now. It's impressive, about 15 feet wide. At the center of the scene stands a slender tree, its crown of foliage bright gold on one side and dark green on the other in an almost abstract rendering of sunlight and shadow. The style is simple, even primitive, with trees and houses suggested in a few basic colors and sharp, almost cartoonish lines. The overall impression is one of symmetry and optimism, a workmanlike tribute to American trade and industry. Porter clearly observed the principles of classical landscape composition, reproduced here with flinty New England simplicity.

Born in 1792 in the prosperous farming town of West Boxford, Mass., Porter was 9 when his family moved to the barely settled community of Flintstown, Me. The move was the first of many for Porter, who remained a wanderer both physically and intellectually for the rest of his 92 years. He was at various times a fiddler, an inventor, an author, a publisher, a soldier and a sailor. As painter, he turned out portraits, signs and, most famously, murals such as this one. At a time when fashionable homes bore imported wallpapers depicting elaborate landscape scenes, Porter created and popularized a school of home-grown home décor, painting recognizable native landscapes in a plain style directly on the walls.

Traveling country roads on foot, painting kit on his back, Porter would arrive in a town and set up shop, distributing leaflets publicizing his services as a short-order portraitist and mural painter - and on occasion offering pieces in exchange for room and board. "Correct Likenesses in full Colours for two Dollars," proclaimed his 1821 notice in the Haverhill (Mass.) Gazette. "No Likeness, no Pay." He decorated the walls of hundreds of homes and taverns with crisp, colorful vistas of seasides, orderly villages and even, ascending the walls of many a staircase, steep crags complete with mountain climbers and the occasional goat.

The Marriott's mural may never hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but even to think of it in those terms is to miss the point. Porter was a painter of democracy. His pictures were utilitarian pieces, produced quickly and in large numbers to improve daily life for as many common folk as he could reach. In the spirit of American Enlightenment figures like Benjamin Franklin, Porter drew little distinction between art and science, decoration and functionality. He used mechanical labor-saving devices like leaf-shaped sponges and stencils to increase the efficiency of his output, taking a step toward mass-produced art.

In his later years Porter turned his attention to invention - creating models of a flying steamship, a mechanically assisted rowboat, a floating dock. He is credited with designing the revolver, then selling the idea to Colt for $100, and founded and edited various journals, including Scientific American. A Boston Globe article published 42 years after his death even suggested that Porter was the real-life model for Mark Twain's "Connecticut Yankee." Indeed, Porter's last years were spent in Hartford, where Twain lived and may perhaps have known him.

Despite his enormous output, Porter was all but forgotten until the mid-20th century, when the historian of American folk and primitive art Jean Lipman rediscovered his charm. Ms. Lipman painstakingly retraced Porter's steps, visiting many of the buildings he decorated and in 1968 publishing "Rufus Porter: Yankee Pioneer." What she found was widespread neglect. Over the previous century, many of the murals had deteriorated. Some were torn down, others papered over. Her book re-evaluated Porter and sparked a resurgence of interest, even a retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Suddenly, having a Rufus Porter added to the selling price of a dwelling or old tavern.

The mural at the Marriott in Boston is a case in point. It began its life as a wall of a tavern in East Jaffrey, N.H., then caught the attention of one A. Erland Goyette, who bought it for his private museum. Mr. Goyette died in 1960, his widow closed the museum, and eventually the contents were sold. This mural, which was removed from its sagging wall and remounted on a fiberglass backing, ended up here, with a plaque proclaiming it "A View of Boston Harbor." Ms. Lipman thought it was more likely meant to represent Portland, Me.

Thirty-five miles away in Harvard, Mass., is the Fruitlands Museum, a former farm settled as an experimental utopian community by Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May. Today it consists of four museum galleries housing collections of Indian artifacts, Hudson River School paintings and 19th-century portraits and Shaker design. During the 1940's, it also became home to a Porter mural, says Mike Volmar, curator of the museum. In a small waiting room, Dr. Volmar gestures for me to turn around. "It's behind you," he says.

If the Marriott mural surprised me with its boldness, this one surprises me with softness. Instead of bright colors, Porter executed this seascape in a gray-green monochrome. Again a slender tree takes center stage, but this one is less geometric, and the somber color scheme lends this piece a cool, mossy beauty.

"It's background," Dr. Volmar says. "For a long time we had a Shaker bench in front of it. People noticed the bench more."

The former Harvard Inn is just a few miles away. In the front entry is another monochromatic mural in shades of plum, which stretches around the hallway, up the staircase walls and along the second-floor hallway as well. It is now an apartment building owned by the Harvard Conservation Trust - and it has taken me some detective work to get permission to see its murals. This is a prime example of a sturdy old New England house that has seen better days, and the Porter pieces are showing their age. Once wallpapered over, they've been uncovered and restored, but water damage has taken its toll. Nonetheless, it's an experience to walk in from the sun-drenched village green to this cool, dark space decorated with trees and ships.

Twenty miles north, in Townsend, Mass., is a house with some of the best, and best preserved, Porter murals on view anywhere. The house is now home to the Townsend Historical Society. Alice Struthers, former president of the society, leads me to an upstairs bedroom lined with murals that show a whimsical side to Porter's nature. All four walls are painted in a varied 360-degree landscape. I recognize some now-familiar elements: the boxy houses, graceful trees and grasses. But odd items crop up: A steamboat chugs along a river, in homage to Porter's fascination with modern transport. A windmill. What appears to be a lighthouse but is thought to be an observatory Porter knew in Portland, Me. (In other buildings, Porter's imagination ran even wilder. In one mural, a pair of gnarled trees bend together to outline an empty space that is, on closer inspection, a perfect cutout silhouette of Napoleon.) The color scheme here is lively: blazing yellow dominates, filling the room with a sunny glow. There's an immediacy, a freshness to these images. Heating is murder on murals, and luckily, this part of the house has remained unheated for its nearly 200 years.

"We had a busload of people come from the Folk Art Society to see it," Ms. Struthers says. "Most people who know this type of art look at it and say, 'Whoa!' " Many sites, I'm learning, are dripping with apocryphal Porter lore. Here, so the story goes, an unnamed museum from New York City once offered the Townsend Historical Society $100,000 for the murals, offering to remove them and replace them with exact copies.

Thirty miles north, over back-country roads, is the last stop on my itinerary: the Hancock Inn, in Hancock, N.H., where the Rufus Porter bedroom can be rented for $175 to $195 a night. The murals lining the room are solid and serviceable, although missing Porter's more bizarre and entertaining flights of fancy. The walls are bright and pretty, but somewhat lacking in variety. Ms. Lipman has noted the hand of a poor restorer from the 1950's. Who can say what it may have been like properly conserved?

To make up for it, I descend the stairs and order the inn's signature dish, cranberry pot roast. A fine and fitting end to a day spent communing with a Yankee original.

If You Go

Here is where to see the Rufus Porter murals described in the accompanying article.

Boston Marriott Long Wharf, 296 State Street, Boston; (617) 227-0800; by the Aquarium subway stop.

Fruitlands Museum, 102 Prospect Hill Road, Harvard, Mass.; (978) 456-3924; www.fruitlands.org. Open weekdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; weekends and holidays to 5 p.m. mid-May through October; $10.

Townsend Historical Society, 72 Main Street (Route 119), Townsend, Mass.; (978) 597-2106; www.townsendhistoricalsociety.org. Open Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission $2.

The Hancock Inn, 33 Main Street, Hancock, N.H.; (603) 525-3318; www.hancockinn.com.

Other murals by Porter or attributed to him are on view at these places:

The Birchwood Inn, Route 45, Temple, N.H., (603) 878-3285, has a dining room painted by Porter; Thoreau is believed to have dined there. (Visitors must call ahead.)

The Bethel Historical Society, in Bethel, Me., (207) 824-2908, www.bethelhistorical.org, operates the Dr. Moses Mason House, an 1813 Federal-style home with well preserved murals attributed to Porter. Guided tours in summer, otherwise by appointment; $3.

The Oliver Wight House on Route 20, in the Lodges at Old Sturbridge Village complex, by Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Mass., www.osv.org, has a hallway with murals attributed to Porter depicting a river, a steamboat, a windmill and other typical motifs.

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