Laura Sprague, Independent Curator
This ADAF Lecture will take place on Zoom, click here to register for the online event.
Attributed to Rufus Porter Probably Portland, Maine Thomas Long (1798-1841), ca. 1815-1817 Watercolor on paper
Aerial Navigation: The Practicability of Traveling Pleasantly and Safely from New-York to California in Three Days, Fully Demonstrated 1849
Rufus Porter and Stephen Twombly Porter Westwood, Massachusetts Francis Howe House first-floor hall, cycle dated 1838 distemper paint on plaster
Rufus Porter and Stephen Twombly Porter Westwood, Massachusetts Francis Howe House first-floor stair mural (detail), dated 1838 distemper paint on plaster
New Englander Rufus Porter (1792-1884) remains one of the more intriguing of the early nineteenth century American folk artists. He was among the first of the entrepreneurial itinerant painters who saw the opportunity in painting affordable small watercolor portraits that allowed average people to own images of themselves and their loved ones. A handbill advertised prices of 20 cents for a silhouette, $2.00 for a watercolor side view on paper, $3.00 for a frontal view on paper, and $8.00 for a miniature on ivory. However he is especially known for the colorful and fanciful landscape murals he painted that decorated the interior plaster walls of New England homes.
Porter was more than just a painter: he was also the founding publisher and editor of the magazine Scientific American, America’s oldest continuously published magazine, as well as inventor, writer, teacher and engineer. He advertised to 1849 Gold Rush prospectors that his 350-foot hydrogen-filled dirigible would soon be flying passengers across America from New York to California, demonstrating a uniquely American blend of creativity, ingenuity, practicality, profiteering and energy that led him to engage in multiple endeavors.
Ms. Sprague will share discoveries about Rufus Porter’s remarkable career, including his foundational youth in Maine; work as an itinerant portraitist and muralist; his printed works sharing “useful knowledge,” and his quest to realize mechanized flight. This program highlights Rufus Porter’s Curious World: Art and Invention in America, 1815-1860, the recent exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine. Laura F. Sprague co-curated the exhibition with Justin Wolff, professor of art history, University of Maine, and together they edited the catalogue of the same name, published by Pennsylvania State University Press in 2019.