A mural by Rufus Porter in the Francis Howe House of West Dedham, Massachusetts, painted in 1838. Photograph by David Bohl, courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

BRUNSWICK — Above all, Rufus Porter was an optimist.

He was so much more – an artist, inventor, publisher and overall man of ambition, who when the Gold Rush hit in 1849 began raising money to build an airship to take people from New York to California in three days. As inventors and artists often do, Porter failed in his cross-country aviation pursuits.

He was disappointed but undaunted, and always found another interest and another project that challenged him. The things he tried and failed at, and the things he accomplished, make him a fascinating historical figure and among Maine’s most colorful and influential artists of the 19th century.

A new exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art places Porter in the context of his times and in the history of American Enlightenment – “the belief that the natural sciences and reason triumphed over faith and superstition,” writes co-curator Laura F. Sprague in the exhibition catalog. “Rufus Porter’s Curious World: Art and Invention in America, 1815-1860” establishes Porter’s lineage of inquisition and advancement to other holistic thinkers like Leonardo DaVinci and Benjamin Franklin, men with fully engaged creative minds whose ideas and accomplishments crossed disciplines, and who were motivated by progress across society.

Rufus Porter, ca. 1872, photographic print by an unidentified photographer, probably Connecticut. Courtesy, Howard W. and Jean Lipman Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Photo courtesy of Bowdoin College

Sprague co-curated the exhibition with Justin Wolff, professor of art history at the University of Maine. It focuses on the 45 meaty years of Porter’s life, from his early 20s to his mid-60s, the time between the War of 1812 and the Civil War and a period of great expansion in technology and travel and a societal desire to share ideas and knowledge.

Porter was raised in what is now Maine, growing up in the early 1800s near Bridgton, where the Rufus Porter Museum celebrates his life and accomplishments. He learned to paint in Portland, where he came as a young man and spent most of a decade before moving to Boston and beyond.


In Maine, people know Porter for his interior wall paintings. An artist of invention and a man of science, Porter traveled throughout New England as an itinerant painter beginning in 1822, taking advantage of the region’s growing network of canals and other advances in travel to paint lush mural landscapes for houses and taverns.

He became very good at it, and used his skills in math and science, and the latest scientific instruments of his day, to solve challenges involving perspective, distance and spatial relationships, so that when he painted a mountain vista alongside a staircase, if might have felt like you were ascending a peak when climbing the stairs. He painted murals through the 1830s, including several in Maine, inspiring a generation of muralists who carried on his tradition.

What we learn from this exhibition is that murals were one among many interests, and perhaps the one that brought him the greatest recognition because of 20th-century surveys of his life and career. In Bowdoin’s 21st-century perspective, we get a much fuller and more interesting portrait, with examples and sketches of his inventions, paintings and drawings, as well as those of his peers and others who influenced him.

The exhibition, on view through May 31, tells Porter’s story in three dimensions, with a working grandfather clock that he designed and helped make – and still tolls on the hour in the gallery – the newspapers and magazines that he published with flourishing mastheads because he understood the power of a visual image, and a percussion cap revolving rifle that Porter designed in 1826 and built with the aid of Portland machinist Joseph H. Center. A decade later, Porter sold the idea to a Connecticut farmer named Samuel Colt, who turned it into a revolver and became rich and famous.

Beyond the murals, Porter invented more than 100 items and patented about 25 of them. He perfected a fire alarm with an internal mechanism that expanded when heated, setting off a signal to indicate a possible fire. He designed, marketed and advertised a plumb and level indicator in 1846, useful to “every carpenter, mason, brick-layer and mill-wright,” and he spent decades working on a design for what he called a traveling balloon or flying machine, an idea that took on urgency with the California Gold Rush and for which Porter was widely ridiculed.

A drawing for Rufus Porter’s traveling balloon. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society and Bowdoin College Museum of Art

By 1850, he was flying a model around a New York ballroom to impress potential investors, and two years later he was selling stock in the Aerial Navigation Co. for $5 a share. He even began building a prototype, but his efforts were full of travails and unfortunate occurrences. The prototype was vandalized and damaged in a storm, and Porter ran out of money.


His efforts failed but his ideas inspired others. The Bowdoin exhibition includes an 1849 drawing from young Winslow Homer, age 13 and living in Cambridge at the time, who sketched a picture of his father on the back of an airship, wheelbarrow and pickax lashed aboard, bound for California.

Rufus Porter invented and marketed this Plumb and Level Indicator in the mid-1840s. Photo by Luc Demers, courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

At a time in American culture when education reform emphasizes the importance of math and science, Porter’s story reminds people of the importance of the arts as a foundation to it all, museum co-director Frank Goodyear said. “This is an exhibition about creativity in many different forms – creativity in the visual arts and creativity in invention and science – and it’s about the communicating of that knowledge to a broader world,” he said. “In an era when we are being pushed toward science, technology, engineering and math, we feel very strongly that the arts have an important place in that conversion. Rufus Porter embodied that ideal.”

The Bowdoin exhibition also establishes the importance of Maine in Porter’s development beyond his home turf around Bridgton. Porter was born in Boxford, Massachusetts, in 1792, and the family came north with a wave of immigrants to settle what is now Maine, Sprague said. They went first to Moose Pond close to Pleasant Mountain, near what became Denmark, in 1800 when Porter was 8, and a year later acquired 100 acres and a sawmill in Baldwin.

He had a brief but monumental stint at Fryeburg Academy when he was 11, representing his only formal education. His teacher there, the Rev. Amos Cook, instilled the value of music, among other things. Later in life, Porter would bring his fiddle with him to make music while also making his career as an itinerant painter.

What he learned in school complemented what he learned on the farm, which, as he described later, was “a practical knowledge of mechanical operations in general.” The farm taught him how things work and how to fix them, and his schooling taught him to be curious and introduced him to the benefit of the arts.

Porter spent nearly a decade in Portland as a young man beginning in 1811, when he began exercising his talents as a house and sign painter and where he was inspired by the artists who came to Maine looking for work, as well as the city’s emergence as a hub for culture and commerce. Marcus Quimby, a founder of the Maine Charitable Mechanics’ Association, founded in 1815, taught Porter the trade of house painting at his paint store on the Portland Pier.


Porter enrolled in the Portland Light Infantry in 1811 and participated in musters on Munjoy Hill, beneath the Portland Observatory which had been built four years earlier. During the War of 1812, he played the fife and drum.

One of the important discoveries of this exhibition was Portland’s influence on Porter during his formative years, Sprague said. “Everything that he is interested in doing for the important part of his career, he started it all in Portland. He had collaborators, he had investors and he had patrons,” she said. “We had no idea that Portland was such an inspirational place for him.”

His life story is a constant intermingling of art and science, Sprague said.

He was a good muralist because he understood spatial relationships. He was also an accomplished painter of miniatures, a profitable opportunity for artists, because he knew how to work precisely with his hands, which also fueled his interest and ability in making useful things like clocks and mechanical almanacs – and revolving rifles.

Image courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

He also understood the importance of sharing his knowledge, which led to his stint as a newspaper publisher. After moving away from his mural work, Porter moved to New York, supporting himself designing and building machinery before moving headlong into writing and publishing. Porter published three periodicals in New York in the 1840s and founded Scientific American in 1845. It remains the oldest continuously published magazine in the country.

He designed a masthead that announced his intentions boldly: A grand academic building surrounded by windmills, bridges, trains, steamboats and factories, which represented the role of science and technology in the forward progress of America. He filled his pages with what Sprague describes in the catalog as “Porter’s world of boundless inquiry, curiosity, humor, and wit. From the large engravings of mechanical improvements to his columns, there seems to have been no subject that failed to pique his interest.”


He offered patent advice and opinions on various topics, and kept an eye on Maine. He noted the opening of the Portland Company and its entry in the railroad engine market.

A confluence of life events led Porter out of publishing, giving him time to focus on flight. All of his grand ideas came together with his attempt at aerial flight. He worked several years to make it happen, balancing his need for money with his advances in design, one begetting the other.

Finally, he had to give it up.

His story serves as an example to artists and inventors today. He worked hard, did what he had to do to support his family and was always seeking new ways to express himself and his ideas. He was itinerant to take advantage of developing transportation networks. He went into publishing because he understood that was how to disseminate ideas. And he never stopped trying to find out what he could, and could not, do. He was still turning a lathe into old age, and at 92 sought investment in horizontal wind wheel.

His legacy, said Sprague, is one of ambition, and also one of failure. He started many projects that he could not finish and left good ideas to others to develop and perfect.

“But he was never bitter, never angry,” Sprague said.

A painting at the exhibition, “Men of Progress” by Christian Schussele from 1862, monumentally portrays the giants of American industry, including Porter’s peers Samuel Morse and Samuel Colt. At the time of the painting, Porter was back in Massachusetts, doing small mechanical work. He identified himself as a draftsmen during a state census at that time.

Porter died in Connecticut at age 92. He was living with a son at his time of his death and buried in a cemetery in West Haven before accurate burial records were kept. The cemetery has been vandalized over the years, and no one can find his gravestone.

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