Jonathan Fisher of Blue Hill, Maine: Commerce, Culture, and Community on the Eastern Frontier
Jonathan Fisher, Painting, Material culture, Maine, Architecture
Jonathan Fisher (1768–1847), a Congregational minister and leading citizen of Blue Hill, Maine, during the early national period, has long drawn the attention of historians (a scholarly biography appeared in 1948) and art historians, thanks to his prolific writing and even rarer distinction as a painter. Fisher was also a surveyor, architect, farmer, furniture maker, and hat and textile producer. Kevin Murphy, working at the intersection of literary biography and material culture studies, takes all these pursuits into meaningful account, providing economic and social contextualization for Fisher’s intellectual and material output. In the process, he recovers the web of familial and community relationships that at once motivated and facilitated Fisher’s endeavors. Exploring the parson’s incentive for engaging in so many activities—above all, maintenance of social authority and economic security—the author makes clear that Fisher did not do so alone.
The fulcrum of Murphy’s study is the house that Fisher designed and built beginning in 1796, when the Harvard graduate took the pulpit in Blue Hill’s Congregational church, which he held during forty years of eroding denominational authority. Successive chapters address Fisher’s planning process for his house; the home as space of production, theological negotiation, and pedagogy; and as a place of display for his most exceptional creation, the large painting A Morning View of Bluehill Village, Sept. 1824, in which the minister’s residence occupies a key position at the compositional vanishing point. While the approach works better for [End Page 515] some chapters than others in which the connection becomes attenuated, it nevertheless presents a compelling framework for Murphy’s broadly inclusive “material biographical” account (27).
Fisher’s move to this eastern outpost from established parts of Massachusetts afforded him the opportunity to shape a town and to profit from that process. Isolation from urban centers did not constrain the ambitious parson, who labored tirelessly to affirm his elite standing within the community. At Harvard, Fisher had studied mathematics and associated representational systems, which he put to immediate use in Blue Hill, as Murphy shows in Chapter 1. Fisher undertook surveying and mapping to benefit town proprietors and himself, and he set out to build (and thereafter frequently modify) a house for his growing family, boarders, and visitors, at times more than a dozen residents. He followed processes wholly unnecessary by customary standards, making detailed designs and perspective studies that established him as the local architectural authority, at a time when the profession of architecture barely existed in the United States.
In a second chapter on production in the Fisher homestead, Murphy surveys the family’s diverse activities and output, goods grown and made both for private consumption and for market. In line with other studies that challenge romanticized notions of self-reliant New Englanders, Murphy highlights collectivity and, especially, the role of women in the household economy. Strikingly, this involved not only female family members but also visitors, set to work braiding hats during social calls. Fisher exempted no one, not even himself, from this traditionally female occupation, customarily performed as outwork. The Fishers, moreover, performed all aspects of hat making and, during a time of increasing mechanization, wove textiles for sale. Murphy’s attention to the “spatial consequences of home production” (105) breathes life into the old cliché (as he himself notes) of the early American rural home as a “beehive.” Readers gain a vivid sense of how crowded a productive household like that of the Fishers would have been.
Fisher afforded himself the luxury of a private study, an addition to the house that accommodated his intellectual work and teaching, benefitting him economically and boosting his status in Blue Hill. At least that was the idea. Deeply conservative, Calvinist, and Federalist, Fisher found himself increasingly at odds with his community, especially Baptists, and with nineteenth-century egalitarian ideals—though he provided [End Page 516] his daughters, given extended attention in Chapter 4, the highest level of education available to women. Still, as Murphy shows in his third chapter, the minister found modern ways to disseminate his traditionalist perspective, engaging the new form of crime writing for broadsides—which he illustrated, engraved, and sold—as a way of framing events that threatened his image of virtuous and orderly community.
In A Morning View of Bluehill Village, Sept. 1824, Fisher somewhat wistfully envisioned that ideal place and his own indispensability to it, figured in his home, church, and the tidy, painstakingly rendered townscape that he had helped shape. The book’s fifth chapter addresses Fisher’s sporadically entrepreneurial activity as a painter of natural history subjects, notably those engraved for his book Scripture Animals; of marketable college views; and of landscapes. (Private self-portraits he made for his daughters play a role in the book’s conclusion as representations of authority that could not be challenged.) Murphy’s discussion of Fisher’s artistic production represents a significant intervention. Fisher, a largely self-taught painter, has usually been considered a “folk” artist, but Murphy reasonably asserts that his education and skills disqualify Fisher from this much debated classification. The view of Blue Hill, a rare early Maine landscape, belongs to the established tradition of topographical representation, seemingly objective but ideologically charged in projecting stability at times of change. More modern pictorial resistance to an increasingly urban and industrialized nation erupted within that decade in the form of dramatic natural landscapes. As in so many respects, the pastor was just behind the times.
On the cusp of religious, social, political, economic, and artistic change, Fisher and his many activities present the historian with a fascinating case study of ambition, adaptation, and resistance in frontier New England. Though Murphy’s exceptionally detailed account at times threatens to occlude the bigger picture he seeks to draw, the value of his book lies partly in that attentiveness and the author’s disinclination to jump to conclusions without providing solid evidentiary basis. Because Murphy presents Fisher in such a nuanced way, his subject differs from the man who appears as one historical player among many in more general accounts of early Maine or early American art, as well as from the biographical protagonist who acts on a community but not fully within it. Attentive readers have much to learn from Murphy’s multidisciplinary approach to the enterprising minister and his borderland neighbors at a [End Page 517] formative period in the nation’s history. We profit from the complications.
Susan Rather is a professor of art history at the University of Texas, Austin. Her most recent publications are ‘“The Limner’: Harry Croswell, Newspaper Politics and the Portraitist as a Public Figure in the Early Republic,” for Shaping the Body Politic: Art and Political Formation in Early America (Charlottesville, VA, 2011), and a piece on the early American actress Miss Cheer, for the British journal Theatre Notebook.