Kevin D. Murphy has been thinking about Jonathan Fisher for almost three decades.
Murphy, a writer and researcher with Maine roots, was working for the Maine Humanities Council in the early 1980s when he began nosing around Fisher’s remarkable life. The occasion was an exhibition about Maine statehood.
Fisher, who grew up in Massachusetts and settled the community of Blue Hill in the Penobscot Bay region of Maine, lived from 1768 to 1847. He came to what we now know as Blue Hill in his 20s, before statehood, and forged his life as a minister, farmer, entrepreneur and artist.
He was a prolific writer who left behind a wealth of letters, sermons, diaries, drawings, paintings and even buildings that he designed and constructed. His life in many ways reflected a pioneer spirit that contributed to the settlement of Maine.
It might be a stretch to say that Fisher made his life easy for historians to interpret, because that discounts the work that researchers do. But he certainly left behind enough material for historians to sort through and draw conclusions not only about his life, but about life in Maine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
As Murphy learned more about Fisher, he became intrigued with his story. He tells that story in a comprehensive new book, “Jonathan Fisher of Blue Hill, Maine,” published by the University of Massachusetts Press.
If the name Jonathan Fisher is not familiar, his legacy may be. His panoramic painting, “A Morning View of Bluehill Village, Sept. 1824,” is one of only a handful of landscape paintings of Maine completed before 1830. It hangs at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.
Fisher, who was also an accomplished draftsman, has drawings in museum collections around Maine, including at the Farnsworth, which is showing one of them now as part of an exhibition about drawing.
In that context, Fisher was Maine’s original landscape artist.
He remains a compelling figure in American history, mobile and complex. He did many things on the frontier, and did many things well.
Murphy, a professor of art history at the Graduate Center for the City University of New York, captures all of them in his biography. We spoke with the author by phone last week.
Q: What compelled you to begin your research on Jonathan Fisher? What aspect of his life and story interested you the most?
A: I started out being interested in the drawings. I had known about him years and years ago. I taught a course in architecture, and Fisher’s drawings have an important place in the scholarship of American architecture. He made perspective drawings, and that was because he was at Harvard, and that was the only place it was taught in the late 18th century.
It was those drawings that really got me into it. I spent quite a bit of time looking at them and thinking what they meant. They had been previously dismissed by some scholars, who thought it was silly or excessive to make elaborate drawings of a one-room schoolhouse or a hog barn — very modest structures that did not require an elaborate drawing.
From there, I began thinking about what those drawings meant to him. I concluded it was more than about drawings that guide buildings, but it was about establishing him as a cultural authority.
Q: What is his legacy? Why are we still interested in him?
A: We’re interested in him because he represents a kind of person who only really existed in the United States at that point in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, someone who operated in an environment where relations weren’t that fixed, where you could carve out your own place in your community. You could be at once a minister and an architect and a surveyor and a farmer and an artist and a printmaker, and he was all of those things and more.
He certainly wasn’t the only person who moved in all those directions and dabbled in a whole range of those kinds of things. But he represents that moment of great fluidity.
His legacy is having helped to shape the way Blue Hill is developed, and the way some institutions that we still have came to be, the Bangor Theological Seminary being one. He made these objects that are rare, like a view of a rural Maine town before 1830. The Blue Hill painting is among the largest and most ambitious of those paintings that still exists. He has left us a picture of that town in the process of its becoming a significant place.
Q: What moved him to paint?
A: He had been exposed to some degree when he was at Harvard to aesthetic theory. In the 18th century, it would have presented painting as one of the most distinguished aspects of art making. I think he would have seen making a big easel painting, as he did of Blue Hill, as the most ambitious work that an artist could do. He had been encouraged at an early age to think of himself as someone who had artistic talent. It was a fulfillment of that sense, that he was a talented person.
Q: You characterize his enterprise as heroic. How so?
A: I think to make something out of nothing is heroic. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s heroic, but also a little arrogant to think that you should make yourself into the local authority on a variety of matters. He had no doubt about his authority to be a kind of moral judge of people who were living around him. That came from the fact that he was probably one of a handful of the best-educated people in Blue Hill at that moment, if not the best educated. And to try to bring about the creation of a community in your own image, not as a portrait of you, but following what you have in mind as a model for an ideal community, I think that is a heroic undertaking.
Q: Was he unique in his pursuit of so many things?
A: In the book, I compare him to a couple of other people who were similar figures. There were certainly a lot of itinerant painters who dabbled in other kinds of work. But he was one of the better-known because he was successful in all those things. He was a successful surveyor, a successful farmer, a successful printmaker, as I have mentioned. He did those things at a level that was actually successful. It was not uncommon, but he has such a high level of education that it made it possible for him to do those things well.
Q: What is your association with Maine?
A: I grew up going to Maine in the summer, to southern Maine, as my mother and my grandparents had done. It’s been a tradition in our family for several generations. I’ve always been interested in Maine culture. In college, I worked a couple of summers at Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk and later at the Maine Humanities Council. I’ve always maintained interest in Maine history.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:
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