In the early nineteenth century, American wall paintings developed from oil-on-wood works that formed part of a room's wall paneling into large-scale, floor-to-ceiling works on plaster. Much of the scholarship surrounding these wall paintings has focused on the artists who created them for homes throughout New England. As the 2010–2011 Douglass Foundation Fellow in The American Wing, my goal is to study instead the homeowners who commissioned the works, as well as the histories of the houses in which they were completed.
A major component of my research thus far has been firsthand study of these interiors, though locating the far-flung houses has been somewhat of a process on its own. To find out where these houses are and whether the wall paintings in them still exist, I have relied on a combination of resources, including old journals, telephone directories, and Google Maps. For example, I found grainy, black-and-white photos of one painted interior from Ithaca, New York, in a 1945 issue of The Magazine Antiques. I was lucky in this instance because the article listed the exact address of the house and mentioned that it had been moved there in the early twentieth century from elsewhere in Ithaca. I didn't know if the house was still standing, so I turned to Google Maps, which revealed a street view of an early nineteenth-century Greek Revival house tucked in between later Victorian houses, confirming that the house had indeed been moved from a different location. I contacted the accountant whose business is listed at the address and discovered that, unfortunately, the murals had been covered over before he purchased the property.
Last October, I went on a road trip to research wall paintings in person. I began in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the historic Warner House, which has the earliest known in situ American wall paintings. Executed between 1718 and 1720 on the staircase walls, the paintings have attracted many scholars because of their mysterious subject matter. In one section, a woman sits at a spinning wheel while a dog barks at an eagle holding a chicken in its talons. Another section depicts the sacrifice of Abraham. Other scenes depict a white man on horseback and two Mohawk chiefs. Although no one has determined exactly how the subject matter relates to Archibald MacPheadris—the North Irish merchant who owned the house and presumably commissioned the paintings—the unusual and highly specific scenes suggest that wall paintings may have been used to express homeowners' artistic tastes as well as their political and social viewpoints.
In Windham County, Vermont, I visited two houses with wall paintings completed in the 1820s and 1830s. Though both landscapes, these murals depict remarkably different subjects. The first house, built in 1818 and owned by Dan Mather, a farmer and tanner, is now a private home owned by Marlboro College. A series of murals in the house, recently conserved when the college received a grant from the Preservation Trust of Vermont, depict uniform rows of trees, a weeping willow, and, on one wall, a New England town with houses and roads among the trees.
The second house I visited in Windham County was owned in the early nineteenth century by Jonas Twitchell, a prominent member of the community who trained as a blacksmith. Its wall painting features a tropical landscape with lush trees, exotic plants, and an erupting volcano. The painting is in fragile condition because it was covered by wallpaper from the late nineteenth century until the 1960s, when the homeowners discovered it.
The wall paintings in the Mather and Twitchell houses reveal something about the homeowners. Through my previous research, I had learned that both men served on the board of the Windham County Bank and in the Vermont militia and found success in farming and other industries that relied on the area's natural resources. Mather lived his entire life in Windham County in a house that his father built for him. Twitchell, on the other hand, was born in New Hampshire, moved to Vermont as a young man, and moved back and forth again at least once. My current research suggests that Twitchell purchased his home, rather than building it, and commissioned its wall paintings later. Perhaps by knowing more about the men we begin to understand why Mather might have commissioned wall paintings that depict his local landscape, while Twitchell, less closely tied to the area, may have been more interested in exotic landscapes that suggest travel and foreign lands.
Many questions about these wall paintings remain. How did they relate to the actual landscapes that were visible through the houses' windows? What motivated homeowners to commission wall paintings rather than install wallpaper or hang paintings, like other New Englanders at the time? These are questions I hope to answer by looking further into early nineteenth-century murals and interior decoration in Windham County and the surrounding area.
Ruthie Dibble is the 2010–2011 Douglass Foundation Fellow in The American Wing.
The American Wing