Bowdoin College Museum of Art Presents Major Exhibition on the Life and Work of Artist, Author, and Inventor Rufus Porter
The exhibition showcases the founder of Scientific American’s diverse creative pursuits, from portrait miniatures to patent models
This December, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) will present the exhibition Rufus Porter’s Curious World: Art and Invention in America, 1815-1860. The founder of Scientific American, Rufus Porter distinguished himself as a creative visionary who pioneered initiatives in art, publishing, and science. The major special exhibition includes more than 80 paintings, inventions, and publications by Porter and his contemporaries, including Samuel Morse, Robert Fulton, Charles Bird King, and Winslow Homer. Curated by Laura F. Sprague, Senior Consulting Curator at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, and Justin Wolff, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Maine, the exhibition will be on view at the BCMA from December 12, 2019 through June 1, 2020.
Rufus Porter’s Curious World unites significant examples of Porter’s artistic endeavors with his patent models, scientific newspapers, original letters, and publications. Unlike today’s often siloed and specialized studies, the nineteenth century was an active period of cross-disciplinary exploration, leading to Fulton’s steamboat and Morse’s telegraph as well as the works of Henry David Thoreau and Frederic Edwin Church. Although Porter is underrecognized compared to these contemporaries, this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue assert that he merits broader attention in both the history of American art and of American science. Grounded in original scholarly research, they establish a new context for understanding and appreciating this important American and explore Porter’s critical work at the intersection of art, science, and technology.
Best known for interior wall paintings, Porter inspired a school of New England murals in domestic settings. His spatial designs immersed residents in breathtaking panoramas of the New England landscape. He also pursued portrait miniatures as a commercial business, and the results show keen observation of the physical world and refined techniques, including the use of a camera obscura and chemical knowledge of pigment application.
Described posthumously as a “Yankee da Vinci” by Time magazine, Porter was also an avid inventor. He developed a revolving gun design purchased by Samuel Colt, successfully applied for more than 24 patents, and dedicated years of study to creating a “Travelling Balloon,” a never-realized mechanized aircraft powered by a steam engine, more than 50 years before the Wright brothers’ flights. Porter believed the dissemination of information was critical to the improvement of society and used publishing to pursue this goal. In 1845 he founded Scientific American, the oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the United States. He also wrote early practical art manuals in the United States.
Featured in the exhibition are works from the BCMA Collection and Bowdoin College Library’s Special Collections as well as significant loans from more than twenty institutions and private collections. Many are on view for the first time. Selected highlights include:
- Robert Fulton’s drawing for a submarine sighting mechanism, which sets the stage for Porter’s own inventions, especially his quest to realize mechanized flight with his travelling balloon or “aeroport;”
- Porter’s elegant design for the Scientific American masthead, which features a temple of learning with trains and steamships, elevating the importance of these technologies which connect people and places across America’s vast distances;
- Examples from the cycle of interior wall murals commissioned by Francis Howe of West Dedham (now Westwood), Massachusetts, which is one of the finest examples of Porter’s mural technique and provides the foundation for understanding the quality of his panoramic designs; and
- A number of Porter’s miniature portraits of known sitters, including four members of the Timothy Flagg family of Andover, Massachusetts, circa 1830, which reveal the development of his style and the range of his patronage.
"Like Benjamin Franklin before him, Porter promoted the ideals of the American Enlightenment and advocated for an educated populace rooted in practical knowledge of the arts and sciences,” said Laura F. Sprague, Senior Consulting Curator and the exhibition’s co-curator. “Porter contributed to the modernization of American society in the antebellum age through his dogged efforts in diverse fields.”
Justin Wolff, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Maine and exhibition co-curator, added: “Rufus Porter’s trades—itinerant painter, inventor, publisher of scientific journals—seem disparate at first. But they are all mechanical arts beholden to his era’s beloved ‘useful knowledge.’ Porter had a farseeing vision for a networked nation, a country literally connected by transportation systems and metaphorically connected by shared knowledge and vigorous optimism.”
Anne Collins Goodyear, BCMA Co-director, noted: “Today, in an era in which attention to STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—disciplines dominates education and public policy, Rufus Porter’s legacy demonstrates the critical importance of the artistic imagination in stimulating discoveries and achievements in all areas of human endeavor. Porter anticipates the practice of contemporary artists who actively explore and incorporate technology and science, such as in the realms of new media, experimentation with artificial intelligence, and bio-art. Porter’s work enables us to embrace the relationship between the arts and sciences and to consider not only how each might benefit the other, but also the many attributes they share.”
Frank Goodyear, BCMA Co-director, continued: “Porter’s name is not widely known today, though we believe it should be. We are proud to contribute to the rediscovery of this important historical figure and invite others to think anew about creativity and innovation. The exchange across disciplines evidenced by the life and work of Rufus Porter is a key benefit of a liberal arts education, making the Bowdoin College Museum of Art an ideal place to showcase his work and explore what it means to stimulate new ways of understanding the world.”
The accompanying catalogue to Rufus Porter’s Curious World is being published with Pennsylvania State University Press. It includes a new biographical study by Sprague, an analysis of Porter’s miniatures by art historian Deborah M. Child, and an essay on Porter’s itinerancy, spatial thinking, and network theories by Wolff.
Porter was born in Massachusetts and raised in Maine, and the exhibition kicks off a year of BCMA programming tied to the bicentennial of Maine’s statehood in 2020. Additional related programming will be announced in the coming months.