Perhaps the tweet below from editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina last weekend shouldn’t have been a surprise.


After all, I knew that Rufus Porter, founding editor and publisher of Scientific American, was a well-rounded fellow. From Frank Luther Mott’s Pulitzer-Prize winning series A History of American Magazines (Volume 2):

“The founder of the Scientific American was one of those inventive Yankees whose versatility, ‘handiness,’ and restless ‘projecting’ life have made his type a legend. Rufus Porter was apprenticed to a shoemaker at fifteen, but cobbling was too dull for him; he liked better to play the fife for military companies on their field days and the fiddle for dancing parties. So he ran away from his cobbling. Then he was apprenticed to a housepainter, and during the War of 1812 he painted gunboats and fifed for the Portland light infantry. Later he painted sleighs, beat the drum for the soldiers, taught drumming and wrote a manual on the subject, and then became a country schoolmaster until his wandering feet and impatient mind took him away from the schoolhouse.”

But I never really latched on to the painting references, so I remained ignorant of his commitment, abilities, and influence in matters of the arts. After I learned from DiChristina’s tweet that one of Porter’s murals is part of the collection at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I did a quick internet search. It led me to the Rufus Porter Museum and an annotated bibliography by Sandra Paetznick, both of which confirmed his status as an influential and prolific muralist in 19th century New England. The Paetznick paper, in turn, pointed me right back towards Scientific American.

The introduction to the first issue of the magazine should’ve been my first clue. Porter promises, among other things, “…useful information and instruction in various Arts and Trades.” He elaborates on this point in a blurb on page 2 that introduces a recurring feature, the Art of Painting (see excerpt below).

Scientific American Magazine (August 28, 1845)

From February 5, 1846 through April 9, 1846, Porter printed a series of 10 columns about landscape painting on walls in the magazine. (A shorter version of the directions were first published in his 1825 book “Curious Arts”). His instructions are practical and detailed, with advice on things like paint-to-glue proportions and brush types. “A half-worn brush is better, but if this cannot be obtained, a new brush may be wound with twine as to reduce the length of the brush part, and will answer the purpose,” he wrote. Here’s one of my favorite passages (highlighted in yellow), on matters of perspective and composition from the February 12, 1846 issue:

"Landscape Painting on Walls," by Rufus Porter, in Scientific American Magazine (February 12, 1846)

The columns are peppered with engravings, such as these.

"Landscape Painting on Walls," by Rufus Porter, in Scientific American Magazine (left: February 26, 1846; right: March 5, 1846)

But to see any of his final paintings in full color (like the one below), I’ll need to take a road trip. The Rufus Porter Museum in Bridgton Maine has some of his works on display and has compiled a list of his murals that are open to the public.

R. Porter and S.T. Porter (1838). Originally from the Dr. Francis Howe house in Westwood, Massachusetts. Currently located in Bridgton, Maine. Courtesy of Julie Lindberg Antiques and Heller Washam Antiques. Photograph courtesy of the Rufus Porter Museum.

If you’re interested in fully embracing the do-it-yourself spirit of Porter and are eager to create a landscape wall painting for your “own amusement or convenience,” keep an eye on the Rufus Porter Museum website for information on an upcoming exhibit on how to paint a mural, as part of their 2015 Yankee Ingenuity season.