Boston Harbor

about 1824
Rufus Porter (American, 1792–1884)


Dimensions

Height x width: 77 3/4 x 185 1/4 x 2 1/8 in. (197.5 x 470.5 x 5.4 cm)

Accession Number

2007.385

Medium or Technique

Watercolor on plaster

On View

Joyce and Edward Linde Gallery (Gallery 237)

Collections

Americas

Classifications

Paintings

Wall painting from the Prescott Tavern, Jaffrey, New Hampshire (built in 1803).


Self-taught itinerant artist, inventor, publisher, and adventurer Rufus Porter began painting murals in private homes, taverns, and inns around New England in 1824. He had been traveling throughout Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, producing “correct likenesses in less than fifteen minutes,” with the help of a type of camera obscura he invented in 1820.[1] Possibly discouraged by his inability to sell his small landscapes or portraits, Porter reprised an earlier career as a fiddle player to supplement his fee, and also decorated rooms. After performing at the brick Prescott Tavern in East Jaffrey, New Hampshire, in 1824, Porter stayed on to paint the walls of the tavern’s taproom parlor, most likely to pay the debt he owed proprietor Colonel Benjamin Prescott for room and board. This mural is one of the Prescott Tavern walls.
Originally thought to be a view of Boston Harbor, this scene may be instead a representation of Portland Harbor in Maine, as seen from nearby Munjoy Hill.[2] Porter spent time in Portland as a boy; his father moved the family there from West Boxford, Massachusetts, shortly after Rufus’s birth in 1792. Porter enlisted as a private in the Maine state militia in 1814, serving through 1815, and according to military records, Porter’s unit conducted daily drilling exercises on the Eastern side of Munjoy Hill overlooking Portland Harbor. Contemporary photographs of Munjoy Hill reveal similar topography to that represented in the mural, including the land masses and elm trees that figure so prominently. In Porter’s view, three islands squat in the bay and schooners glide in and out of a small harbor at the right. Two poplars on the foreground bank frame a spreading elm, which divides the horizontal composition directly in half. Gently curving branches reach into the composition at the left and right edges, echoing the pattern integrated into the stenciled border at the top of the wall. Rather than painting specific elements of this familiar landscape, Porter manipulated it to create an imagined scene rather than an observed one, a formalized design rather than a realistic representation. He instructed his readers to do the same, writing in Scientific American during the 1840s, “The artist must excel nature in picturesque brilliancy and embellish the work though not in perfect imitation of anything.”[3]

By using these decorative conventions, Porter intended his murals to provide a quick, inexpensive, and durable alternative to the imported scenic wallpapers available to only the wealthiest New Englanders in the early years of the nineteenth century. The MFA’s Shepard Room [27.301] from Bath, Maine, for example, contains imported wallpaper similar to the “Galérie Mythologique” pattern produced by famed French designer Joseph DuFour around the same time. DuFour’s“Bay of Naples” and “Captain Cook” were among the most popular designs of the day, and Porter likely saw examples of both. [4] Like the more exotic “Captain Cook,” Porter’s ordinary New England harbor scene possesses a muted palette, a foreground dominated by a large central tree, and an expanse of water punctuated by land masses and sailing vessels. Perhaps Porter saw the legendary adventurer’s voyage to the South Seas as reminiscent of his own seafaring travels, including in one of the Prescott Tavern paintings an erupting volcano as a reference to Cook.

Porter approached his murals the same way he approached his scientific inventions, intending to create an appealing but affordable product using whatever time-saving means possible. His 1825 recipe book Curious Arts and his numerous painting entries in Scientific American during 1845 and 1846 provide ample instruction for self-taught artists and a unique window into his working methods. Porter boasted that he, and anyone following his recommendations on color, proportion, and design, could prepare and complete four walls of a cycle in five hours, for a total cost of $10.[5] He began the process by drawing a horizon line on each wall and then worked from top to bottom on dry plaster, using pigments ground in a glue binder he mixed himself. Many artists before him decorated furniture with paint and stencils, but Porter proved to be among the first muralists to employ both, considering stencils to be a valuable time-saving tool. In this painting, he used corks and sponges for the border, the houses, and the ships, and he created the two playful squirrels at left by turning the same stencil at different angles. While he often had help from his nephew, Jonathan Poor, and his son, Stephen Twombly, and later collaborated on murals with the stencil master Moses Eaton, Jr., Porter is thought to have worked alone at the Prescott Tavern.[6]

The lack of signed examples and the sheer number of Porter murals scattered throughout New England make them difficult to date. Before Jean Lipman established a chronology for the murals in 1968, Porter’s work had been attributed to a British spy from the War of 1812, a wandering sailor, and any number of French, English, or German immigrant artists roaming the countryside in the early years of the nineteenth century.[7] Boston Harbor fits securely into Porter’s early period, with its tight drawing, limited use of landscape elements, and use of sharp but somewhat unrealistic shading. The stippled foliage of the trees, subdued color scheme, and primitive rendering of the details suggests his early sign paintings and craft art of the 1820s. While the early murals may lack the confidence and maturity of Porter’s later work, they possess a charming simplicity not present in his paintings of the 1830s and 1840s.

When the Prescott Tavern was torn down in 1950, wealthy New Hampshire industrialist A. Erland Goyette purchased the parlor murals and installed them in his private museum in Peterborough. The museum closed when Goyette died in 1960, and his widow stored the paintings until 1979. The Marriott Corporation purchased this mural at auction in 1980. Prior to installation of the piece in the upper lobby of the company’s Long Wharf Hotel in Boston, conservators removed the painting from its original sagging support and remounted it on a fiberglass backing. The MFA received the mural as a gift in 2007.

Notes
1. Jean Lipman, Rufus Porter Rediscovered (New York: Crown Publishers, 1980), 5.
2. Ibid., 106.
3. Scientific American, March 26, 1846.
4. Nancy McClelland, Historic Wall-Papers (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1924), 371, 388.
5. Lipman, Rufus Porter Rediscovered, 95.
6. Ibid., 152.
7. Ibid., 92.

Victoria Ross

Provenance

About 1824, commissioned for the Prescott Tavern in East Jaffrey, N.H.; 1950, removed to the Goyette Museum, Peterborough, NH; stored by the owner, Mrs. Hazel Goyette, upon the Goyette Museum's closing; January 31, 1979, Fine Americana, Sotheby's Parke Bernet, lot 655, to the Marriot Corporation; 1982, installed at Boston Marriott Long Wharf Hotel in Boston, Mass.; 2007, sold by the Marriott Corporation to Joyce and Edward Linde, Boston, Mass.; 2007, gift of Joyce and Edward Linde to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 27, 2007)

Credit Line

Gift of Joyce and Edward Linde