Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., the Maine state historian, said murals such as the ones in my house were popular in New England during the colonial revival period, which runs from about 1890 to 1950. There was a nostalgia for a vanished past and a sense of wanting to reclaim and identify with it.
The murals’ theme also speaks to a self-conscious identity of Kennebunkport, or an awareness of how the outside world looks at the town, according to Richard D’Abate, former director of the Maine Historical Society.
Kennebunkport is portrayed in these scenes as having a connection to the Revolutionary War, prosperity, and ultimately a “kind of idyllic, quasi-aristocratic, American-style gentility.” That identity is represented most famously by the town’s association with George H.W. Bush, whose compound on a stretch of land known as Walker’s Point gained the world’s attention during his time as President.
The murals offer a curated version of a history and identity. There is, for example, no representation of the Native Americans who called the land their home for thousands of years and gave the town its name. And the impulse to claim one’s colonial roots in the 1920s may have been a reaction to the rapid changes in immigration, economics and transportation happening at the time.
That said, the oral history behind the murals speaks to vulnerability and friendship. The story goes that Mr. Norton became addicted to absinthe while studying art in Paris. He settled in Kennebunkport at the behest of his mother, who hoped village life would help him overcome his addiction. Aware of the artist’s talent and his condition, Judge Luques challenged him to stay sober and complete the murals. He did, finishing them in three weeks for a fee of $400.
I think it is this story, more than the ones depicted on the four walls, that resonates in the room the most. The civic-minded judge, the afflicted but talented artist, the house itself, built before Maine was even a state, a witness to its successive owners’ good fortunes and bad.
I have thought about how to share the murals when the pandemic is over. Mr. Shettleworth said that sometimes murals are moved outside of a house, but I think in this case that would be like cutting a flower from its stem. Context is a vital part of the story.