Thursday, May 13, 2010

New England Frescoes

On a recent trip with the American Folk Art Society to New Hampshire and Maine I was privileged to see first hand a room with wall murals painted by the great 19th-century folk artist Rufus Porter (1792-1884). These walls are in a private home in Hanover, New Hampshire, and so the viewing was a rare opportunity. I was not disappointed.

Porter was a true Renaissance man of his times. He was not only a decorative painter and portrait painter but also an inventor and author. He had a huge impact on decorative painting in America with his book, A Select Collection of Valuable and Curious Arts, published in 1825, and the many essays he published as founder and editor of Scientific American in the 1840s and 1850s.

Porter was appalled at the state of decorative painting in rural America, and so he did something that no other folk artist was ever in a position to do: establish a standard for painting in appearance and technique, and make that standard available to the masses.

Focusing on mural painting, which at the time was done in oil on dry plaster as an inexpensive substitute for imported French scenic wallpaper, Porter taught would-be artisans how to lay out a room and fill in landscape details. Establishing a uniform horizon line. Using fluid brushstrokes to create trees and shade their trunks. Use pre-cut stencils to include houses and barns. Adding narrative interest with bays, inlets, and a variety of vessels, both sail and steam.

The effect is astonishing, and very evocative of the New England coast. Porter painted walls along the Maine coast and into New Hampshire, and his nephew Jonathan Poor kept up the tradition. His techniques were widely adopted, and Porter-style wall murals abound in New England and New York State. Some of the more famous walls have long been removed from their original homes and sold on the market. Many, I’m sure, were destroyed or covered with layers of wallpaper over the years as paper became less expensive and itinerant artists disappeared.




That is why standing in an original Rufus Porter painted room is a unique experience not to be missed. Porter understood, as the Hudson River school artists did, that America’s real treasure was its land. More than any other artist of his era, he succeeded in making that treasure a part of people’s daily lives.

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