Renaissance Man: New Exhibit Explores The Extraordinary Life And Legacy Of Rufus Porter

Jan 30, 2020

A new exhibit at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art explores the remarkable of life of Rufus Porter. Porter is well-known as a folk artist who painted murals in homes around New England in the early 1800's. But he was also an inventor with many ideas - including a flying machine - and a publisher, who founded Scientific American, which remains the longest-running magazine in America.

Maine Calling host Jennifer Rooks spoke with the director of the Rufus Porter museum in Bridgton, Karla Leandri Rider, and the curators of the new exhibit, Justin Wolff and Laura Sprague. Sprague says Porter's broad interests were nurtured as a student at Fryeburg Academy.

SPRAGUE: The headmaster at the school was this very interesting man named Amos Jones Cook, a Dartmouth College graduate who was one of Massachusetts's most progressive educators. He believed in the education of girls. He believed in music. He had a cabinet of curiosities and a wonderful library. So even though Porter was not at that school for very long he was introduced to this enormous world. And because of his personality and his interests, He then took that out and created this fascinating career.

ROOKS: You say that he lived in Bridgton from the time he's nine until he's 15. He shows up at some point in Portland, correct? How old is he when he gets from Bridgton, Maine to Portland, Maine as a young adult?

SPRAGUE: He's there by about the age of 18 because he was enrolled in a very elite institution called the

A photograph of Rufus Porter.
Credit University of Rochester archive / via Wikimedia Commons

Portland Light Infantry. It was a volunteer militia company, and Portland at that time was leading up to the War of 1812. And it was a heady time in Portland, and as part of this very elite group of men, Porter was exposed to all sorts of wonderful ideas.

ROOKS: What do we know about when and how Rufus Porter began painting?

WOLFF: It's most likely that he was introduced to painting at Fryeburg Academy, but when it came to Portland, there were a number of itinerant painters passing through. And so miniature portrait painting was something that one could come into contact with in Portland. There were some wonderful painters, John Brewster being one of them. And so we suspect that Porter came into contact with some of these itinerants. And being a man of curiosity, a man who apparently would try anything, he tried his hand at miniature portrait painting. It's also likely that he came into contact with wall painting or mural painting while he was in Portland. Portland was a cultured place. So it was largely this sort of itinerant network that he then became a part of once he became an accomplished painter.

ROOKS: And one might have a small portrait painted because, we have to remember, this is before the photograph.

WOLFF: Absolutely. So miniature portraits are quite common. Sometimes they were very, very small, maybe painted on ivory and actually adorning a jewel of some sort. Other times they were a little bit larger, maybe the size of an index card and these were cherished keepsakes. But they were certainly more affordable, more widely available to a broader class of Americans. And that's one of Porter's great legacies, is that he shares the fine arts with a broader class of citizens than, you know, previously could access that.

ROOKS: And that's a theme that's going to be throughout his life, correct? - that he's always going to want to - whether he's painting or inventing - he's going to want to reach regular people.

SPRAGUE: That's right. He did that with his series of publications called "The Curious Arts" that he started in 1820, which is really a manual - you can do it yourself. It's like a do it yourself, how to manual. And then he sort of expands on that idea in his newspaper publishing in New York when he founds Scientific American. So he wanted anybody with a good idea to be able to promote it, and to learn how to make it into this useful product. And that's what he realized he could do through this newspaper publishing -  that he could really reach a wide audience. And he was a very successful, innovative publisher.

WOLFF: If I may Laura, one thing to add to that is that in the first edition of Scientific American, published in 1845, he stated very clearly that his desire was to spread useful knowledge to a wider class of people. And he spoke in a very familiar rhetoric at the time - he was skeptical of elitism and privilege and a promise to sort of root out of that kind of arrogance wherever he found it.

The exhibit "Rufus Porter's Curious World," is on display through May at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. You can listen to the entire Maine Calling discussion about Rufus Porter here.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.