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Charles Porter

 (1847 - 1923)
Charles Ethan Porter was active/lived in Connecticut, New York.  Charles Porter is known for fruit and floral still life painting.

Charles Porter

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Charles Porter
Citizens of Color, 1863-1890: The "Talented Tenth

Charles Ethan Porter

Mounting racism certainly was a barrier that narrowed the range of employment and limited the satisfaction that would result from work, but it was somewhat more permeable for Blacks with unique talents or abilities.  Such a person was Charles Porter, who has recently been rediscovered as a major 19th painter.  Only a small portion of his works are known today, and what we do have tends to be work done in old age after the height of his creative vigor had already passed.

Porter's family had lived in Hartford since the 18th century, but his father moved to a house in Rockville while Charles was a young boy (we are not sure of his birth date, which was approximately 1847-50).  It appears that, although Porter kept a studio in a tower on a Rockville hilltop not far from his family's home, by 1877 he had also established a studio in downtown Hartford in the tower of the Cheney Block on Main Street, and by then he had also exhibited.

Thanks to the sponsorship of Mark Twain, Porter was able to go to Paris in 1881-84, where he came under a variety of influences and was able to reach the heights of his ability.

Although Porter's personal life is a bit obscure, it is evident that he encountered a city in which racism was increasing in intensity.  Porter was acclaimed by the press and was awarded important prizes, but after settling in Hartford (he actually spent time travelling and also working in his New York and Rockville studios - until the latter was hit by lightening), his race began to result in social isolation.

A Bavarian artist who shared his studio, Gustave Hoffman, had to sell Porters paintings door to door because no one would buy the work of a Black man.  It is said that a significant part of his output in these years still hang unrecognized on the walls of Hartford homes.  By the time of his death in 1923, racism had cast him into complete obscurity, and it was only very recently that he is once again recognized as one of the country's outstanding late nineteenth-century artists.  For an assessment of Porter's experience in Hartford's Black community, there is a useful study by Professor James Miller, "Charles Ethan Porter and the Hartford Black Community," in Charles Ethan Porter (1847?-1923) (Marlborough: The Connecticut Gallery, Inc., 1987).


Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for Charles Porter
One of the first African-Americans to exhibit at the National Academy of Design, Charles Porter specialized in fruit and floral still life painting and was active both in New York and Hartford, Connecticut.  From 1869, he studied at the National Academy, and from 1881 to 1884 was in Paris before settling in Hartford, where he became a friend of Mark Twain.

Porter's birth date has now been established as 1847.  He was born in Hartford. The artist himself provided this information when he applied to the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 1881.

Sources include:
Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art
Note on AskART Discussion Board from Hildy Cummings about birth date

Biography from Roger King Fine Art
The son of a poor and illiterate laborer, Charles E. Porter became one of the first, if not the first, African-American to study at the National Academy of Design.  He traveled to London and Paris in the 1880s to continue his studies, a pattern followed by nearly all 19th-century American painters who had the means to do so.  On his return, he set up a studio in New York, but financial difficulties forced him to return to his family home in Rockville, Connecticut, where he became active in the Hartford art community.

His still life paintings embraced a soft, lush quality that differentiated it from much of  previous American still life painting, which was often characterized by a virtuosic but harder-edged technique.  Porter's work embodied a soft focus while capturing a naturalistic immediacy, qualities apparent also in his landscapes.

Porter's work was enthusiastically received in the Connecticut press and by his colleagues and students.  He was a much-admired teacher to aspiring artists and counted among his friends and patrons artist Frederic Edwin Church and writer Mark Twain. 

He was a charter member of the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts, and exhibited at the National Academy of Design, the American Society of Painters in Watercolor, and the Hartford Decorative Art Society.

Despite his success in Hartford, Charles Porter attempted several times to return to New York, always unsuccessfully.  Nonetheless, he encountered increasing difficulty selling paintings later in his career.  He re-worked many of his canvases, sometimes painting over them two or three times.  His financial circumstances declined precipitously, and Porter spent his final years in poverty, selling paintings door-to-door or bartering them for food.

Porter died in 1923 and is buried in Grove Hill Cemetery in Rockville, near his Fox Hill home.

Biography from Stagecoach Gallery
Charles Ethan Porter was a noted still life and floral painter of the 19th century.  Floral painting in the United States was limited to a small cadre of artists in the 19th century, which was probably due in part to a dominant European floral tradition that is still evidenced in European museums today. Consequently, only the most courageous American artists ventured into floral still life painting.

Porter's paintings give a fresh American interpetation to an old European tradition. American flora is painted with translucent colors and rich, full brushstrokes. The use of light and dark colors are utilized to create a dramatic floral portrait. Porter's emphasis is upon the natural beauty of flowers.  The containers, tables, and props are considered as secondary to the miracle of nature's beauty.  Porter's interest in nature was also translated into paintings of fruit, landscapes, marines, insects and fish.

Porter was an active artist from 1865 to 1915, the following is an overview of some of his achievements.

Exhibited: 1871 National Academy of Design
Exhibited: 1873 American Society of Painters
Exhibited: 1876 National Academy of Design
1818 Porter studied in Paris, carried with him letter of introduction from his sponsor; Samuel Clements, (Mark Twain}
1910 becomes a charter member of the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts

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About  Charles Porter

Born:  1847 - Hartford, Connecticut
Died:   1923
Known for:  fruit and floral still life painting

Essays referring to
Charles Porter

Black American Artists