Family and Early Years
Rufus Porter descended from an illustrious early New England family. The first settlers were John and Mary Porter who moved from Dorset, England to Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1600s. When John died in 1676 he was the largest landowner around, owning property that included the modern cities of Salem, Danvers, Wenham, Beverly, Topsfield and Boxford, Mass. He had held many prominent positions.
Later descendents included Benjamin Porter, great-grandfather of Rufus. He moved to West Boxford in 1716 as the wealthiest man there. His progeny include ministers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, an army colonel, a ship's captain, a professor mathematics and legislative members. Related by marriage to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Honorable Rufus King (minister to England) and Harriet Porter Beecher, stepmother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The family farm descended to Tyler and Abigail Porter, parents of Rufus, who sold it in 1801 and moved to Maine when Rufus was 9 years old. They left the aristocratic 18th Century traditions for a lumberman's town and settled in Flintstown, incorporated in 1802 as Baldwin, which became Sebago in 1826.
This adjoined the Bridgton tract which was given in 1766 to a number of Boxford families as a grant for family service in the 1690 Indian Wars. Two of Tyler Porter's brothers already lived there. In 1804 they moved to Denmark (Pleasant Mountain Gore, today a part of Bridgton), which was situated on Moose Pond with Pleasant Mountain opposite. Rufus attended the newly established Fryeburg Academy, a one-room schoolhouse then, of which his uncle Rev. Nathaniel Porter was a founder. He attended for six months and studied the classics as well as having violin lessons.
The scenery around Fryeburg became a stock item in Porter's frescoes: mountains in the distance and rock climbing at Jockey Cap. He often incorporated rocky scenes in his murals, even the New Hampshire landmark “Old Man of the Mountain” (which collapsed in 2003).
His sole teacher was the Rev. Amos Cook, and he never had formal instruction thereafter. He profited from independence of the self-taught, though lacking disciplines of scholars. The narrow prejudices and conventions escaped him and he became the most progressive American of the 19th Century as he developed his ideas from within.
After that, he apparently helped on the farm and invented some time saving devices, wrote poetry and played music. His despairing family apprenticed him to a shoemaker brother in West Boxford, which only lasted a few months. He walked 108 miles from West Boxford to Portland in 1807 to live with a second cousin, Aaron Porter. He remained until 1816. The Portland Observatory on Munjoy Hill was built that year, overlooking Casco Bay. The Observatory figured in many mural paintings, as did the view of Portland Harbor.
After fiddling for several years, by 1810 Rufus was a house painter, having learned the trade from Marcus Quincy of Portland. Painting involved the grinding and mixing of paints, sizes and constructing brushes. He painted floors and woodwork with decorative, grained painting fashionable at the time; also marbleized designs. Sign painting involved pictures of animals and scenes which played a role in his later work.
In 1812 he joined the militia in Boxford with two of his brothers, and was sent to Portland to guard the seacoast. Soon he painted gunboats and by 1813 was back in Denmark with his uncle, David Porter, playing the drums for Denmark soldiers, painting sleighs and drums, and teaching drumming. There he learned techniques and designs, subtle shading, brilliant eagles on drums and combined stenciling with freehand design.
In 1814, he was back in Portland as a fifer and drummer in the Portland Light Infantry. This was considered an honor and the position was socially sought after by young men of the day. He trained on Munjoy Hill and again viewed the harbor through the evenly spaced elm trees. This explains the constant use of militia marching in his wall murals wearing the Portland Infantry uniform, and his trademark elm trees which was his dominant use of perspective. The War ended in 1814 and he briefly taught school in Baldwin and then Waterford, Maine. Later, he returned to Portland and built wind-driven gristmills. In October 1815, he married Eunice Twombly of Portland and soon after began his nomadic existence. Though he continued to travel throughout his life, he was devoted to his family and produced 10 children. Many of them accompanied him on his travels.
He moved to New Haven, Conn. and taught music while opening a dancing school. He became a life long teacher and began to paint small watercolor portraits. From 1817-19 he made trading voyages to Hawaii as young people of the day often did, looking for new ideas and lands while the trade was lucrative. Ships and Hawaiian scenery played a prominent role in his murals.
In 1848, his first wife died in Billerica, Massachusetts, where she had lived since 1823. In 1849, he married Emma Tallman Edgar of Roxbury, Mass. They had five children, but only the youngest, Frank Rufus, lived past infancy.
Rufus Porter took a long journey from 1819-23 from Connecticut to as far as Harrisonburg, VA, stopping in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore to view museums and meet other painters. He began painting portraits. In 1823 he visited Charles Wilson Peale's Natural History Museum in Philadelphia, and also the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art. There was a department set up in the latter which took silhouettes on the spot, which must have contributed to Porter's interest in the method used.
Jean Lipman, author of Rufus Porter, Yankee Pioneer (1969), speculates that Porter must have met Peale, who lived until 1838. Peale's museum was renamed the Philadelphia Museum, which burned in 1854. She notes that evidence remains of a large landscape painting filling up the end of a gallery, which reached to the ceiling. As most of the large scale mural landscapes painted at that time were done by Porter, it is possible it was painted by Rufus.
While in Alexandria, VA in 1820, Porter built his first camera obscura, and this was the first major instance of his ability to anticipate the practical demands of the times. Leonardo da Vinci had developed the camera in 1612, and it was in common use by the early 18th century. Porter described it in his Curious Arts book printed in 1825, p. 70. Benjamin West used one, and by the 1850s Daguerre was applying the concept to photography. Porter's contribution was to popularize it early in the 1800s by publishing a practical easy-to-make portable camera. He thus pioneered in the field of popular portrait painting a decade ahead of the trend.
In a Scientific American article on Jan 22, 1846 on Miniature Painting, he tells his students to draw the outline in pencil, then retrace in diluted colors with a fine camel's hair brush. "The outlines of the features may be traced with lake; those of the hair, with burnt umber, and the drapery with blue and black. The lead pencil lines are then rubbed off, and the main color applied. The face is washed with diluted Venetian red, laid on smoothly and uniformly. The cheeks of "beautiful faces" are colored a light carmine. The hair is painted with a mixture of black and burnt umber, with additions of red if the hair is sandy or reddish. Yellow ocher is used if the subject is young and the hair very light. The coat is painted black, blue or green, the color mixed with white so as to be opaque. For all other parts the colors are worked transparently. The face and the white part of the drapery are shaded with a neutral tint. White is used only for small specks representing the reflection of light from the eyes, or from jewelry."
The majority of his portraits were of the side view, with the distinctive brushed upward hair on the men. He built a cart to carry the camera and traveled with it thereafter. While he traveled, he began to think of an airship and other inventions.
He was accompanied by "Joe", probably his nephew Jonathan Poor of Sebago, Maine. Joe was the son of his sister, Ruth Porter, and by the 1830s he became the most productive member of Porter's school of landscape painters. He decorated many homes in Bridgton and surrounding towns. This school of apprentices grew during the 1830s.
By 1824, his interest shifted from portraits to landscapes. Not finding much of a market for landscapes, he shifted to murals. He then traveled throughout New England painting mural landscapes for houses and taverns, where he often fiddled to entertain as well. His penchant for teaching continued as he published A Select Collection of Valuable and Curious Arts, and Interesting Experiments in 1825 which was so popular it reached 6 printings. He probably devised this from numerous similar books written in the years immediately before (such as The School of Wisdom (1787), The Artist's Assistant (1794), One Thousand Valuable Secrets (1795), and the Artists Companion (1814). But he simplified his and it became the most widely read throughout New England. It represented native art as against Continental traditions in the arts and crafts, and the preface makes it clear that the book was intended for the "profit or amusement" of amateurs. It is presumed that all the trades described in 102 pages - glass painting, etching, painting carpets and wallpapers, etc. - were practiced by the author.
Porter's special contribution to the field was to produce a practical and popular anthology of techniques.
Art schools taught the eye to paint in exact visual appearance of things, but amateurs learning from a printed book were not so sophisticated, and their work came as close to abstract than reality. They were craftsmen rather than artists. Colors paint themselves in the Fancy. Fancy is synonymous with imagination. Fancy goods were designed to engage the senses.*
Fancy is the younger sister of imagination - she chases butterflies while her sister takes flight in angels.*
The faculty of imagination is the greatest spring of human activity and the principal source of human involvement. (Dugold Stewart, 1792)*
* From American Fancy, 2004, by Sumpter Priddy
Journalism and Inventions
After successfully painting murals in hundreds of homes in New England from 1825-45, and training a group of young artists in his theories and techniques who assisted him, Rufus Porter's attention was drawn to the new world of electrotype, telegraphing and journalistic possibilities. He first founded the American Mechanic in Boston in 1843, and printed issues for a year with some success. Next we find him in New York City working as an electro typist. He then founded the Scientific American magazine, really a four page newspaper devoted to everything he was involved in.
After nine months, he sold the paper to the Munns, but continued as editor for another year. Through reading these papers, we learn more about Rufus Porter's thoughts and talents than through viewing his art. He was a poet and editorialized with poems. He obviously read everything in print available throughout the world as new inventions, economic growth, moral and religious issues, jokes and humor and the development of the Industrial Revolution are commented on weekly. This magazine endures today as it served a need for readers throughout American to become versed in progress and new techniques being introduced.
He used this new method of spreading his teachings and inventions to the utmost, and expanded on his book Curious Arts by detailing techniques he had perfected through 20 years of practice.
Jean Lipman says on p. 35 of his biography, "Had he not so inadequately promoted his inventions and so casually disposed of them, he would have been known as one of the greatest of American inventors. Instead, he became a mechanical Johnny Appleseed sowing seed of new and ingenious ideas as he traveled through New England and abroad through his journals... When you consider the importance..."
Rufus Porter took out over 100 patents. He is best known for the idea of a revolving rifle which he sold to Samuel Colt for $100 in 1844.
In 1820, while traveling on foot, he invented the main ideas for a hot air balloon, and constructed his first model in 1833. (Jean Lipman, page 41)
In 1841, promoted the airship in American Mechanic.
1847-8, exhibited a small working model in New York City
1850, a larger model was exhibited in Boston and New York
1853, a 22 foot model was demonstrated in Washington.
Although his ideas were ridiculed at the time in the press, he successfully demonstrated his model circling the rotunda 11 times in the Merchant's Exchange in New York. But having no funds to develop it, he petitioned the US Senate in 1851 for $5,000 to produce a working practical utility. This was referred to committees and the appeal died. In 1852 he tried selling $5 shares of stock in "Aerial Navigation Company", and in 1852-3 he started a bi-weekly newspaper in Washington. He sold 600 shares and began an aeroport but met with disasters such as severe storms, vandalism and the varnish he used caused the canvas to disintegrate with not enough funds to continue.
In 1869, at 77 years old, he was still optimistic that he would succeed. Although he was never successful, Jean Lipman states that his 50 years of effort "played a significant, though now almost forgotten, part in the history of aerial navigation."
He died in 1884 in West Haven, Conn. while visiting his youngest child, Frank Rufus Porter. He is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery there.
In 1936, an article in the Boston Globe states that Rufus Porter "knew more about aerial dynamics than any other man of his time."
Rufus Porter, Yankee Pioneer 1968, by Jean Lipman, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., New York, NY
Rufus Porter Rediscovered, 1980, by Jean Lipman, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., New York, NY
A Yankee Inventor's Flying Ship, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, MN 1969
Aerial Navigation, New York, 1849
An Aerial Steamer, or Flying Ship, Washington, D.C. 1850