One worked here all his life, others were born here and achieved fame elsewhere, just passed through or summered and retired here. They are artists with connections to our locale who achieved prominence between 1825 and 1960. To this day, their works are found in museums, galleries and art auctions.
Beginning in the late 18th century, painting murals on the walls of homes and public buildings became a widespread practice in New England. Rufus K. Porter, born in Boxford, MA in 1792, was, according to biographer Jean Lipman, “the chief wall painter of his day and the most noteworthy mural painter in the history of American art.”
Porter’s primary work as an itinerant muralist was composed between 1825 and1845 and over 100 home decorated by the artist and his followers have been found in New England. Lipman writes, “He decorated walls, rapidly and cheaply, for the simple farmhouse and taverns of everyday folks.”
Local examples attributed to him include the Chase house in East Topsham, the Nutter house in Swiftwater, the Daniel Carr house and two others in North Haverhill, the Wilson-Lavery house in Haverhill Corner, the Hinckley-Beale House in Orford and the Moses Kent house in Lyme. Descriptions and photographs of these murals can be found in Katharine Blaisdell’s Over the River and Through the Years, Book Six. As several of these murals were found covered by wallpaper, Blaisdell speculates that there may be others still hidden in local homes of that period.
The murals in the Daniel Carr house achieved public notice when in 1943, novelist Frances Parkinson Keyes used the house as the setting for Also The Hills. The endleaves of the novel featured a Porter mural.
For subjects of these murals, Porter drew on his own experiences. His life in Portland and service in the Maine state militia are frequently represented by the appearance of soldiers and ships in his works. Scenes from his travels to Hawaii and the homes of famous individuals are found alongside pastoral scenes of grazing cows, rivers, and farmhouses. These subjects were often mixed in murals in the same room or hallway. While his murals added brightness and interest to their locations, the somewhat primitive nature of his work suggests that he did not have formal training.
In addition to his murals, Porter also had an interest in science and technology. Lipman writes that Porter’s inventions include a horse-powered flatboat, a fire alarm and a revolving rifle. He publicized his ideas in scientific journals, several of which he edited. In 1845 he founded the magazine Scientific American, selling it six months later. He was still intellectually and physically active into his 80s. Porter died in Connecticut at age 92. Dartmouth’s Robert L. McGrath wrote that Porter’s interests in art, science and technology made him “a kind of Yankee Leonardo da Vinci.”
The portrait painter who has many works exhibited locally is Alonzo Slafter. He was born in Norwich, VT in 1801. He abandoned the study of law to attend a small art school in Newbury taught by Abigail Henderson. Wells’ History of Newbury mentions that Slafter painted a portrait of Henderson, skillfully capturing the character of his teacher.
Blaisdell’s description of this artist includes the following quote from Linda Monteque. “He devoted many years to art in which he obtained merited distinction. He was however too sensitive and retiring to place himself in a position to be known and appreciated by the public. He wrote many sonnets and other poems in early life of decided merit, a few of which against his wishes got into print.”
Slafter painted portraits of some of the area’s leading citizens. Those include members of the Barron and Strickland families of Bradford. These portraits, along with a self-portrait, are in Bradford Public Library. In 1838, he painted several portraits of the Marcus Wheeler family of Thetford, now in the Wisconsin Historical Museum. One attributed to him is in the National Portrait Gallery. An 1840 receipt for $35 for two portraits is an example of his income.
In later life he lived on a farm outside of Bradford village. Census takers in 1850 and 1860 found him living with numerous other adults at the Merrill and Bliss boarding houses. A still life owned by the Library is said to have been painted as part of his rent. He died in Bradford in 1864.
Henry Cheever Pratt, noted portrait and landscape painter, was born on Orford’s Upper Street in1803. According to Orford historian Alice Hodgson, as a teenager he used the whitewashed walls of his family’s barn as palettes. Samuel F. B. Morse saw talent in the paintings and took him to Boston as student and assistant.
In 1845 Pratt joined painter Thomas Cole on a painting expedition to Maine. His reputation was established, when in 1851, he accompanied John Russell Bartlett on the US Mexican Boundary Survey. The hundreds of sketches he made became the basis of some of his landscape paintings.
Pratt’s local landscapes include “On the Amunoosuc River” and one of 1830s Orford Street as seen from the Fairlee Cliff. His many portraits included Benjamin Pierce and the Marquis de Lafayette. He died in 1880 in Wakefield, MA. His works are exhibited in the Boston Museum of Fine Art, Dartmouth’s Hood Museum and other museums across the nation.
William Baxter Palmer Closson, painter and wood engraver, was born in Thetford in 1848 and attended Thetford Academy. He studied at the Lowell Institute and later provided high quality wood engravings for publications such as Harper’s magazine. When photomechanical processes began to replace wood engraving in the 1890s, he changed his focus to painting. He is known for his portraits, landscapes and coastal scenes. Sixteen of his paintings are in the American Art collection at the Smithsonian Institution. He died in Hartford, CT in 1926.
Artist Frederick Andrew Bosley had a connection with Piermont. He was born in 1881 in Lebanon, NH and entered the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School in 1900. He became very involved in the Boston art world, exhibiting his impressionist works throughout the northeast. He became director of the Museum School. In 1926 he purchased a farm in Piermont where he tried unsuccessfully to start a summer art school. In 1931 he resigned from the Museum School, “in protest over the introduction of modern art into the school program.” He died in 1942 in Concord, MA. His connection with Piermont was strong enough to cause him to be listed in the genealogies section in the 1947 town history.
Joseph Knowles created hundreds of etchings and paintings. He stayed briefly in Bradford around 1912 and became acquainted with the family of Dr. Walter Cole, from whom he rented lodging. He painted a large panorama of Bradford village that hung for a time in the Bradford Hotel. It is now on display at the Bradford Public Library, a gift from the Cole family. He also presented the Coles with a painting of the Bradford falls.
Soon after he left Bradford, Knowles gained national prominence when he spent two months in the Maine woods without the benefit of any clothes or other necessities. It was said to be the result of his concern that people were losing touch with nature. It was also an effort to help the struggling Boston Post, which reprinted his periodic messages written with charcoal on birch bark. When he emerged, clothed in the skin of a bear and in excellent health, he was greeted on his trip to Boston by over 100,000 fans. The rival Hearst newspaper proclaimed the exploits of the “Nature Man” a hoax. To prove himself Knowles offered to followed up with two similar adventures.
Out of his notoriety, Knowles built a career as an author, lecturer and artist, spending his life in Oregon. Upon his death in 1942, the Boston newspapers recalled the 1913 controversy, where as the Sunday Oregonian recounted his contributions as “a sailor, newspaper illustrator, lecturer, author, motion picture producer and actor, showman, nature lover, Boy Scout counselor and creator of fine etchings, water colors and oils.”
Two women are noted for artistic talents during this period. The first is Adelaide Coburne Palmer, born in Orford in 1851. She became an established Boston artist and a member of the Copley Society. She was best known for her landscapes and fruit still lifes, one of which became the basis for the Fruit of the Loom trademark. Around 1900 she moved to Piermont to care for her aging father but still continued to exhibit in Boston and elsewhere. In 1902 she was listed at the Annual Exhibit of Paintings by Prominent Artists in Portland, ME. She died in 1928.
The second woman, about which little is known, is Betsey Richardson Comstock, born in Corinth about 1837. A description of her was included in a 1913 history of Cambridge, MA. “Quite young she developed a talent for painting. After the death of her husband  she pursued her art and obtained a creditable rank among contemporary artists. This gift has been consecrated to charity. The proceeds from the sale of her pictures are devoted to some worthy causes. Mrs. Comstock is a New England woman of the best type…”
I saved for last the one artist in this group with whom I was personally acquainted. I first saw Henry Ryan MacGinnis when, in 1953, he accompanied his wife Jane to my 5th grade class at the Orford Street school. She was our art teacher. For several summers as a teen I did yard work at their Lake Morey home and had a chance to see both finished works and works in progress.
Descriptions of his work by art expert Richard Frey are found in the 2008 catalog of an exhibit of MacGinnis’ work at the Trout Gallery at Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College.
MacGinnis was born in Indiana in 1875. Listed early as “an artist of note,” he was a member of several artists groups including the Hoosier School, Pennsylvania’s New Hope Circle and the art colony at Provincetown, MA. Achieving some important portrait commissions, he began a 40-year teaching career at the School of Industrial Arts in Trenton, NJ.
His local connection began when he summered at Upper Baker Pond in Orford. He later moved to Lake Morey, where he was described as “the resident artist.” He briefly opened a summer school to teach open-air painting. He later retired to his Fairlee home and remained there until his death in 1962.
MacGinnis’ artistic career is described by Frey: “His varied work along the east coast makes it difficult to see him as part of any single place. He never considered himself part of any ‘school. He was an independent artist who only painted the scenes that moved him. [MacGinnis’] greatest love was to paint outdoors.” This artist’s “earlier works were more naturalistic and later works more impressionistic.
He chose to paint many locations close to his New Hampshire summer home. He also painted a number of portraits, including several of his wife Jane. Many of his works are in the hands of private collectors who generously share them with museums and galleries interested in MacGinnis’ career.
When I started to research this column, I had little idea of the extent to which our locale was connected to American art history. I have included in this column several examples of the works of these artists and encourage interested readers to go to Internet sources, galleries and museums to view others. In viewing them, one gets the sense that artists often express their life experiences in their art. They, like the many artists who followed them to and from this area, may have found their muse to varying degrees in the beauty of our region and the interesting people who lived here.