Rufus Porter, Art, and Enterprise in Portland, Maine
Rufus Porter was raised on Moose Pond in today’s Bridgton, northwest of Sebago Lake and thirty-eight miles from Portland. In 1804, when Rufus was twelve, his father enrolled him at Fryeburg Academy in Fryeburg, Maine. This private day and boarding school established in 1792, and still in operation today, was about nine miles west of Porter’s home. Amos Jones Cook, the Academy’s progressive headmaster, was an inspirational figure: he published The Student’s Companion, a compilation of works by celebrated authors and poets; employed the power of music in the education of his students; and assembled a renowned cabinet of curiosities for his charges.Porter readily found intellectual stimulation in spite of his frontier location. He later fondly recollected that his family’s farm was “beautifully variegated with woodlands, high and steep hills, miry grass-marshes, level plains, sand banks, running brooks, and a small pond; also a large orchard, . . . cider-mill, . . . mechanical implements of agriculture, and a workshop in which they were made and repaired.” He especially enjoyed “drawing sketches, floating a boat, or running a miniature cart” and “excelled in drawing and music; having made a small fiddle about that time.” Tyler Porter’s business operations included a sawmill and the development of a canal in the waterways near Sebago Lake. As a boy, Rufus “learned to construct not only miniature water-wheels and saw-mills, but water-power trip-hammers, and a variety of complicated mechanical movements.” He came into Portland as a teenager “for a season” to work on board ships in the harbor.
A beloved landmark that survives today, the Observatory was constructed as part of Portland’s redevelopment following the town’s destruction in 1775 by a British naval bombardment. Other new and notable commercial and residential buildings in the federal style were the work of Alexander Parris, a young architect from Pembroke, Massachusetts, who developed many innovative classical designs for residents. In 1805, Parris designed a three-story brick dwelling with a low hip roof for Commodore Edward Preble (Fig. 3). The home’s entrance faced the side street, enabling a large double parlor to run across the principal Congress Street elevation. Parris’s facade for the Portland Bank built in 1806 featured semicircular arches on the ground floor with applied pilasters on the upper elevations. Sky-lit interior stairs and groin vaulting made this the town’s most sophisticated example of federal commercial architecture (Fig. 4). Although immensely talented, Parris faced the financial adversities caused by the Embargo of 1807. He soon left to expand his horizons, pursuing a notable architectural career, first in Richmond, Virginia, and then in Boston.
In addition to improving their built-environment, Portlanders also supported societal organizations, including the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association (MCMA), founded in 1815 to educate men whose livelihoods were derived from their manual or skilled labor (known as mechanics) and “promote inventions and improvements in the Mechanic Arts.”Marcus Quincy, a town officer, was one of the MCMA’s founders. At his store on the waterfront, he “attend[ed] to the painting business” and is credited with teaching Rufus Porter “the trade of a house painter.” Porter himself observed that he “commenced learning the house and ship painting, . . . [and] was a ready-made sign and ornamental painter.” Porter’s endeavors may have further benefited from an extended group of relatives in town, including cousin Aaron Porter (1752–1837), a physician who helped develop Porterfield Plantation in western Maine, which was incorporated as the town of Porter in 1807. His wife, Paulina King Porter (1759–1833) was the sister of Rufus King (1755–1827), a leading United States politician, and half-sister of William King (1768–1834), who became Maine’s first governor.
In March 1811 Portland Light Infantry, a private militia company, enrolled Rufus as a new member. Rufus participated in regular musters on Munjoy Hill and target practice in Deering Oaks, part of the Deering estate nearby on Back Cove. He recollected that “being a musician in a first-rate uniform company of infantry, and having been previously for some months in regular service at a fort, I was sometimes employed in teaching a fife and drum school.”Fig. 5). Within a rural landscape filled with white tents, uniformed militia members mingle with happy spectators. Horses, carriages, and musical instruments can all be seen. A side drum, with decoration attributed to Charles Hubbard (1801–1876) of Boston, illustrates the type of percussion instrument that Porter would have played (Fig. 6). Its painted design depicts the Seal of Massachusetts surrounded by flags and trophies of war.The Portland artist George Bailey later depicted the company’s activities in a delightful painting of an encampment (
Company members also inspired Porter in the field of invention and mechanical improvements. John Hancock Hall (1781–1841), its lieutenant, was working on a breech-loading rifle that he patented in 1811. His innovative mechanism enabled more efficient loading of the gun, and his concept of interchangeable parts transformed the early arms industry. After winning a contract with the United States armory, Hall left Portland in 1819 for Harpers Ferry, Virginia, the site of one of America’s two arsenals and armories, where he produced thousands of rifles between 1820 and 1840. Within fifteen years, Porter would design his own innovative gun mechanism. He never patented his revolving rifle but sold the concept to Connecticut arms manufacturer Samuel Colt in 1836.
In 1807, Congress passed the unpopular Embargo Act, prohibiting shipping and trade with Britain and France, and Portland’s commercial progress was temporarily curtailed. Even in these tough economic conditions, young artists and entrepreneurs sought ways to generate income by their talents. As a teenager, John Neal (1793–1876), one of Porter’s contemporaries, excelled at penmanship and maintained merchants’ ledger books. After meeting traveling penmanship master William W. Rockwell in 1811, Neal traveled to Bowdoin College and central Maine, giving penmanship and watercolor lessons and creating ink portraits.Fig. 15). This ambitious young man soon left Maine to promote American artists, including Washington Allston (1779–1843) and Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872), and published America’s first art criticism in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1824 and 1825.With his Specimen of Penmanship, ca. 1813, inscribed “Vive La Plume!,” Neal celebrated his creativity and engaged potential clients (
Many years of Porter’s residency were dominated by activities related to the War of 1812. During this anxious time, Portland struggled to get Massachusetts to send military support, a major factor in residents’ renewed push for statehood after peace was declared late in 1814. Hundreds of militia volunteers moved in and out of Portland, serving short terms in companies. They improved two state forts: Fort Sumner on Munjoy Hill, just north of the Observatory, and Fort Burrows below at Fish Point on the Fore River. Architect Alexander Parris superintended the construction of two new federal forts—Preble and Scammel—that guarded the ship channel. A painting of Portland’s harbor illustrates how these structures appeared before they were enlarged in 1862 (Fig. 16). Fort Preble, honoring Commodore Edward Preble, who died in 1807, was on the south side of the Fore River near shipyards. Fort Scammel, named for Alexander Scammell, a Revolutionary War hero, is visible on the island at the center of the picture. Volunteer militiamen worked on these forts, and others served on privateers that forayed from the port. This may have been when Porter was “employed on board armed vessels, [when] I acquired some knowledge of marine discipline, as well as sailor’s duty,” as he recollected. During the war, the British invaded and occupied Castine in Penobscot Bay, a twenty-four-hour sail to Portland. Their skirmishes in other coastal towns raised a serious threat to Maine, and Portland prepared for war. Porter served as musician and played the fife and drum in Captain Nathaniel Shaw’s Company, Lieutenant Colonel M. Nichols’s Regiment. Raised at Portland and serving from September 7 to 19 and, again, from September 26 to October 3, 1814, it included members of the Portland Light Infantry. Later that fall, from November 5 to 26, 1814, Porter served again as a musician with Lieutenant Oliver Bray’s Detached Company at Fort Burrows. This palisaded structure is visible in the lower right of Codman’s encampment painting (see Fig. 2).
Portlanders, Porter among them, personally experienced one of the war's most dramatic naval engagements. On September 5, 1813, the brigs USS Enterprise and the HMS Boxer engaged in battle off the coast of Maine, resulting in a stirring American victory. Tragically, however, the young American and British captains were both mortally wounded. The damaged ships were brought into Portland harbor, and the town arranged a double funeral. On September 9, following an elaborate cortège, the captains were buried side-by-side in the Eastern Cemetery on Munjoy Hill. As a militia musician and member of Captain Shaw’s company, Porter may well have participated in the solemn military procession.
After peace was declared on Christmas Eve 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent, cultural activities resumed. Porter’s militia experiences inspired his first known attempt in publishing: a Martial Musician’s Companion, a compendium of instructions for the drum and fife. While looking for a collaborator, he wrote to Charles Norris in February 1815. Norris was the same New Hampshire publisher who Porter’s headmaster, Amos Cook, had corresponded with a few years earlier, and Cook likely made the referral. Although Porter secured his copyright, he was unable to negotiate the book’s financing and it was never printed. This failure did not discourage his future efforts, however, for in another five years Porter found support for his first arts manual, known familiarly as the Curious Arts, published in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1820–1821.
A new book of particular interest to Portlanders was Abel Bowen’s The Naval Monument, his major work of 1816 that commemorated American achievements during the War of 1812. Bowen created engravings of the principal battles, including the Enterprise and Boxer, based on oil paintings by Michele Felice Cornè. In the years ahead, Abel and his brother Henry Bowen would collaborate with Porter on some of his new endeavors.
Another notable work was the copy of Nicholas Poussin’s Continence of Scipio of 1640 by John Smibert (active in America, 1728–1751) (Fig. 24). The painting tells the story of the Roman general Scipio who, despite his fabled lasciviousness, returned a captive to her fiancé rather than enslaving her. Providing a meaningful example of gracious leadership, the painting was likely used to instruct students academically, artistically, and morally in the early years of the college. Born in Scotland, Smibert trained in London, traveled in Europe and to Bermuda, and finally settled in Boston in 1729. He became the first professionally trained portraitist in the American colonies. Copying Old Masters had been a vital component of an artist's education since the Renaissance, and Smibert copied Poussin's celebrated 1640 painting while studying in England. He is known to have assembled Old Master drawings and paintings that he brought to Boston when he emigrated. After Smibert’s death in 1751, his family kept much of the collection intact in his studio where it continued to inspire American artists, including John Singleton Copley and Washington Allston. James Bowdoin III purchased part of Smibert’s collection in the late eighteenth century and with his bequest to the College established one of the first public art collections in America.
Remarkable works by American artists also graced Massachusetts Hall, including Bowdoin’s family portraits by Robert Feke (active 1741–1750) and Joseph Blackburn (active in America 1754–1763). James Bowdoin’s gift of major works by Gilbert Stuart included the companion portrait to Thomas Jefferson, then president of the United States–that of James Madison, his secretary of State. Possessing a keen intellect and prodigious talent, Stuart studied under Benjamin West in England in the late 1770s. On his return to America, he gained fame for his state portraits of Washington and other American leaders. Bowdoin commissioned the portraits of Jefferson and Madison circa 1805–1807. Jefferson had appointed Bowdoin America’s diplomat in Spain, where he planned to use the large pictures in his formal reception rooms. However, Stuart was slow to finish the portraits, and, when Bowdoin’s tenure was cut short by the Napoleonic Wars, the portraits remained in Boston.Since their arrival in Brunswick in 1813, they have remained treasures of the Bowdoin College collection.
All this artistic activity must have inspired and encouraged Porter, a naturally gifted painter, to take-up his brush and give small watercolor portraits a try. He also had a family to support; he married Eunice Twombly (1794–1848) in October 1815 and their first child Stephen Twombly Porter was born the next summer.26 & 27). Porter’s earliest known family group, the Lanes lived in Minot, a farming community north of Portland. With one backboard inscribed “Rufus Porter” in chalk, art historian Deborah Child linked these portraits to the body of Porter work she was documenting. Her essay, “Rufus Porter’s Miniature Portraits: Practice and Patrons” in Rufus Porter’s Curious World builds on this research. Three additional miniatures of Maine sitters have recently been identified: Jacob Davis (1791–1864), Thomas Long (1798–1841), and his older sister, Betsey Long (1796–1867). Davis, like Rufus Porter and Benjamin Lane, served in the Massachusetts volunteer militia in Portland in 1814 (Fig. 28). One year older than Porter, Davis was a corporal in Captain Bridgham’s Company and Lieutenant Colonel Clark’s Regiment in Portland from September 1 to 24, 1814, at the same time that Porter served there. Davis also lived in Minot, like the Lanes. Thomas Long became an accomplished musician in the United States Navy; he and Betsey Long were from Buckfield, fifty-five miles north of Portland (Figs. 29 & 30). Porter deftly captures confident likenesses with his sitters exuding a special poise and vitality. Careful looking reveals details of Porter’s technique in these early works: a fine brown undulating line delineates the men’s ties and the ladies’ collars; broad color washes similarly appear on the dresses and coats; and fine striations create hair styles. Often, test brush strokes remain in the margins where Porter checked the color and viscosity of his paint. Remarkably, the reverse of all six portraits retain remnants of a cursive inscription in red ink, indicating they were likely cut from the same sheet of paper. Were they created about the same time when these mutual friends or acquaintances were together before returning to their hometowns? Four of the six works–the three Lanes and Betsey Long– retain their original grain-painted frames, likely the handiwork of Porter himself.Miniatures of Maine sitters attributed to Rufus Porter were first identified in 2007, when portraits of Benjamin Lane (1777–1846), his wife Hannah (1780–1867), and a child were sold at an estate auction (Figs.
One of Porter's last known Portland endeavors was the construction of his horizontal windmill. This project foreshadowed his later entrepreneurial efforts to promote mechanical invention through stock companies. Built on Green Street at the top of today’s Forest Avenue, the site of earlier windmills, Porter’s was completed in the summer of 1818. In this mechanical innovation, the mill’s sails, supported on a frame, moved parallel to the ground. Porter may have drawn inspiration from English examples, such as the one published in The Repertory of Arts and Manufactures in London in 1796. Merchant Bradbury C. Atwood, Porter’s collaborator, advertised shares of stock in the enterprise. The local press reported that the windmill successfully “manufactured excellent meal” and Porter later observed that it was “so constructed as to be manageable by a child of 12 years of age.”Porter honored his partner when he named his daughter, born that July, Mary Bradbury. However, after the mill was badly damaged in a storm, Porter was unable to repair or sell it. Discouraged by this reception, he soon sought greener pastures, relocating to Cambridge, Massachusetts, by February 1820.
During nearly a decade in Portland, Porter embraced painting, invention, and publishing–three fields that he diligently pursued in the decades ahead. The town’s diverse and talented pool of artists, mechanics, and entrepreneurs not only helped him advance these interests but inspired him in his early efforts. Porter, like his notable contemporaries John Hall, John Neal, and Alexander Parris, found initial patronage, honed his skills, and developed the confidence to move on to larger markets and seek new opportunities. With a new understanding of Porter’s life in Portland, it is hoped that continued research of his activities–and attribution of additional early watercolor portraits–will shed further light on the depth and influences of his Maine experiences.
Sincere thanks are extended to Jamie Kingman Rice, director of collections and research; Nicholas Noyes, collections librarian; and Sofia Yalouris, image services coordinator and collections technician, at the Maine Historical Society for their generous efforts and kind support. For further information on the Society and its collections, see www.mainehistory.org and mainehistory.pastperfectonline.com
The historic newspapers cited were published in Portland, Maine, unless noted otherwise.
About the Author
1 Laura F. Sprague and Justin Wolff, eds., Rufus Porter’s Curious World: Art and Invention in America, 1815-1860 (Brunswick, Me.: Bowdoin College Museum of Art in association with the Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019), 15-16.
2 Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 15-17.
3 Rufus Porter, “Epitome of Experience and Practice,” Aerial Reporter 1, no. 20 (April 27, 1854), reprinted in Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 121-124.
4 Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 15; “Epitome, ” reprinted in Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 121, 123.
5 Laura Fecych Sprague, ed., Agreeable Situations: Society, Commerce, and Art in Southern Maine, 1780-1830 (Kennebunk, Me., The Brick Store Museum, 1987), 46–48; Moody owned Dolland’s achromatic refracting telescope; see John K. Moulton, Captain Moody and His Observatory (Falmouth: Mount Joy Publishing, 2000), 20, 23, 30–31.
6 Richard Candee, “‘The Appearance of Enterprise and Improvement:’ Architecture and the Coastal Elite in Southern Maine,” in Agreeable Situations, 83-34.
7 Constitution and History of the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association (Portland: Bryant Press, 1965), 3. Porter was not a member but would have benefited from its mission.
8 Quincy’s election as tythingman appears in Eastern Argus, November 24, 1810. “A Rare Mechanic,” Tribune and Bulletin, October 6, 1846, Maine Historical Society, courtesy of Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. “Epitome, ” reprinted in Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 122-23.
9 Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 16; see also Joseph W. Porter, A Genealogy of the Descendants of Richard Porter, Who Settled at Weymouth, Mass., 1635, and Allied Families: Also Some Account of the Descendants of John Porter (Bangor: Burr & Robinson, 1878), 285-287.
10 Portland Light Infantry, Record Book, 1803-1811, Maine Historical Society; the page with Porter’s signature is illustrated in Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 20; “Epitome,” reprinted in Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 123.
11 Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 19-20, 25-16.
12 Agreeable Situations, 36-37; respectively, Eastern Argus, April 9, 1807, and Eastern Argus, August 11, 1808.
13 Eastern Argus, December 10, 1816.
14 The McLellan portrait is in the collection of the Portland Museum of Art, 1972.71.
15 See n37 below; Agreeable Situations, 123-124; the discount appears in his advertisement, Portland Gazette, March 29, 1802. The likeness of Stephen Longfellow has been attributed to Roberts since it was published in 1987, see John Mayer and William David Barry, “A City Awakens: The Arts and Artists of Early 19th century Portland,” Maine Historical Society online exhibit: www.mainehistory.org
16 Agreeable Situations, 207-208. Skilled and day laborers earned one dollar per day. Twenty-five cents would have been less significant for a professional or member of the merchant class.
17 Others included Reverend Samuel Deane and Eunice Pearson Deane, his wife; see Agreeable Situations, 89-91.
18 Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 60.
19 Henry Cole Quinby, Genealogical History of the Quinby (Quimby) Family in England and America (New York, N.Y., 1915), 286-289.
20 Agreeable Situations, 91-92; Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 57-58.
21 Agreeable Situations, 48-49.
22 Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 16, 26-27.
23 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “‘From the Fair to The Brave’: Spheres of Womanhood in Federal Maine,” in Agreeable Situations, 222-223.
24 Benjamin Lease, That Wild Fellow John Neal and the Literary Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 11; John Neal, Wandering Recollections of a Somewhat Busy Life: An Autobiography (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869), 38, 132, 185; Portland Gazette, April 29, 1811.
25 Neal’s Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine reviews from August 1824 to February 1825 are reprinted in Harold Edward Dickson, Observations on American Art: Selections from the Writings of John Neal (1793–1876) (State College: Pennsylvania State College, 1943), 26–37.
26 Joyce Butler, “Rising Like a Phoenix: Commerce in Southern Maine, 1775–1830,” in Agreeable Situations, 27–28, 52–53. Kenneth Thompson, an historian of Portland’s early forts, kindly assisted with this research. He argues that although Fort McHenry in Baltimore is more famous, the Portland forts were important deterrents at keeping the British at bay. Jamie Rice at the Maine Historical Society also shared helpful insights. “Epitome, ” reprinted in Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 123; Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 19, n48.
27 Agreeable Situations, 53-54. A description of the procession appeared in Eastern Argus, September 9, 1813. See also Candace Kanes, “Enemies at Sea, Companions in Death,” www.mainememory.net
28 Rufus Porter to Charles Norris, February 16, 1815, Baldwin, Me., with January 24, 1815, copyright notice, and Amos Cook to Charles Norris, September 24, 1812, Charles Norris Papers, Mss. 11, New England Historic Genealogical Society. See also Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 21-22, 24.
29 Abel Bowen, The Naval Monument: Containing Official and Other Accounts of All the Battles Fought Between the Navies of the United States and Great Britain During the Late War(Boston, Mass.: Abel Bowen, 1816). Within weeks of its publication, Portland booksellers advertised it for sale; see Portland Gazette and Maine Advertiser, June 25, 1816. For Bowen-Porter collaborations, see Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 26-28.
30 Agreeable Situations, 208-209.
31 Seth Clark, Business Ledger, 1815-1834, Maine Historical Society, Coll. 4061; Elder Family Papers, 1750-1805, Maine Historical Society, Coll. S-1871.
32 William David Barry kindly brought Moses Pierce’s activities to the author's attention. William David Barry, “Artists at Portland, Maine, 1784-1835: An Updated List of That Compiled for the Portland Museum of Art, 1976” (Maine Historical Society, typescript, 2007), n.p.; Lydia Foy, “New England and New York Portrait Makers in Canada, 1760-1860,” in Painting and Portrait Making in the American Northeast, ed. Peter Benes and Jane Montague Benes, Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings (Boston: Boston University, 1994), 114-115; Eastern Argus, October 11, 1815.
33 Eastern Argus, October 6, 1818.
34 Richard H. Saunders, John Smibert: Colonial America’s Portrait Painter (New Haven, Ct., Yale University Press, and the Barra Foundation, 1995), 210-211; Susan E. Wegner, “Copies and Education: James Bowdoin’s Painting Collection in the Life of the College,” in The Legacy of James Bowdoin III (Brunswick, Me.: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1994), 141-142.
35 Marvin Sadik, Colonial and Federal Portraits at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Me.: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1966), 164-166. Charles C. Calhoun, A Small College in Maine: Two Hundred Years of Bowdoin (Brunswick, Me.: Bowdoin College, 1993), 53, 111-112.
36 Respectively, Eastern Argus, October 6, 1818; Eastern Argus, December 8, 1818. Unfortunately, Pierce’s copies have not been identified.
37 Stuart charged $100 for a 30-by-25-inch portrait, see Carrie Rebora Barratt and Ellen G. Miles, Gilbert Stuart (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004), 204.
38 For more information, see www.nhhistory.org
39 Joseph C. Anderson, comp., “Portland, Maine, Marriage Intentions, 1814–1837,” Maine Genealogist 30, no. 1 (February 2008): 36; Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 21.
40 “Lane Family Register,” watercolor and ink on paper, Private Collection. Deborah M. Child, “Thank Goodness for Granny Notes: Rufus Porter and His New England Sitters,” Antiques and Fine Arts (Summer/Autumn 2010): 190–95.
41 Gardner W. Pearson, comp., Records of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia Called Out by the Governor of Massachusetts to Suppress a Threatened Invasion During the War of 1812 (Boston: Wright and Potter, 1913), 175. Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 19, n48. Other Porter-attributed portraits with related details have been found in a private collection but, unfortunately, their sitters are not identified.
42 Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 22-23; Alfred Cole and Charles F. Whitman, History of Buckfield, Oxford County, Maine (Lewiston: Journal Printshop, 1915), 619. Unfortunately, Thomas’s miniature was cut down later for a smaller frame. For examples of the brush testing, see Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 67-69.
43 Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 12, 23; respectively, Portland Gazette, July 7, 1818; Hallowell Gazette (Me.), July 29, 1818.
44 Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 23. Porter’s first known advertisement for miniature painting appeared in the Middlesex Gazette (Concord, Mass.), February 5, 1820; he charged two dollars for likenesses that took ten minutes to complete. It is reproduced in Deborah M. Child, “Rufus Porter’s Miniature Portraits: Practice and Patrons,” in Rufus Porter’s Curious World, 69.