Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art, 1907-1975. (Learning from Exhibitions)

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art, 1907-1975. (Learning from Exhibitions)


Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities


Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) was a fascinating, complex and distinctive American painter who produced Intimist-inspired Realist work in the midst of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

While most of the American and European artists were exploring and challenging previous techniques and movements through abstractionism, expressionism, minimalism and conceptualism, Porter successfully fused a unique American vision out of two disparate styles.

From the turn-of-the-century French painters like Bonnard and Vuillard, both Impressionist and Intimist in style, Porter developed an intimate, sensual and representational approach which he capably combined with current characteristics of contemporary art: color, gesture and abstraction.

Thus, although he is generally regarded as a painter of family and friends, Porter's personal path promoted the poetic significance of everyday life and a theoretical fusion of paint application and composition.

This vision, singular to Porter, made for a significant achievement in art-historical terms, and made him "perhaps the major American artist of this century," according to poet and critic John Ashbery. Besides being an innovative painter, Porter, himself, also was a prolific poet and art critic. He was an intelligent and engaged philosopher-artist who knew art and artists, writers and literature. He was an observer, critic, theorist, collector, supporter, and devoted friend to many in the art world.

Fairfield Porter was born in Winnetka, Ill., the fourth of five children. His father, James Foster Porter, was an architect and an amateur scientist who had inherited a Chicago-based real-estate fortune. His mother, Ruth Wadsworth Furness Porter, was a former schoolteacher and lifelong social activist. Both sides of the family had New England roots.

Their Greek Revival house was filled with plaster casts of classical sculpture and reproductions of great European paintings. The parents created an atmosphere that nurtured their children's artistic interests and sensibilities. Indeed, Fairfield's older brother Eliot became a noted photographer.

Fairfield Porter graduated from Harvard University, traveled to Europe, and spent a couple years studying art at the famed Art Students League in New York under the tutelage of such masters as Thomas Hart Benton, among others. Partially because of his thoughtful and analytical approach to art, his own artwork and his success and recognition were slow to evolve.

His first memorable works date only from his early 40s, but from 1948 on, his talent was consistent and he received high marks for his carefully composed portraits, interior scenes, landscapes and still lifes. Surprisingly, Porter is well known and acknowledged within the art world but less known by the casual museum visitor. This exhibition and superb biography by Justin Spring will certainly expand the public recognition that Porter so richly deserves.

Porter's paintings, like the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists who inspired him so much, are meticulously composed but not heavily constructed. They are representational, yet avoid space much deeper than the foreground. Working almost exclusively from nature, his pictures evoke atmosphere and light.

Like Homer and Hopper, he portrays a realism that is inseparable from the presence of outdoor light, but Porter's use of general light is softer and warmer. And in his acknowledgement of earlier masters, his scenes evoke a mood of nostalgia in their imagery, but his technique of applying strokes and dabs of paint is a bit bolder and broader than his predecessors.

Through these methods, Fairfield Porter made Impressionism into something quite different and distinctively American. What Porter said of Vuillard could be equally applied to his own work: "What he is doing seems to be ordinary, but the extraordinary is everywhere."

The exhibition, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art, 1907-1975, includes approximately 80 paintings, drawings and watercolors by this compelling and influential artist. …

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