Little known in his own time and nearly forgotten for much of ours, Charles Ethan Porter is gaining attention as one of the finest still-life painters of his era. Born into poverty in Hartford, Connecticut, Porter became one of the first African Americans to attend the National Academy of Design in New York. Instructed in classes alongside other future stars, such as J. Alden Weir and Albert Pinkham Ryder, he also studied privately with Joseph Oriel Eaton, an academician who taught William Merritt Chase. In 1881, Porter went to London and Paris for further training, carrying letters of introduction from Mark Twain and other Hartford luminaries. Porter is best known for his fruit and flower still-life compositions, and his landscapes in oil and watercolor. The meticulous realism of his early work allowed for later adaptation of Barbizon and impressionist styles. His faithful representation of detail together with his rich color and fluid brushwork became even more sophisticated in his mature work of the 1880s. Frederic E. Church, a patron and frequent visitor to Porter’s Hartford studio, commended his work and asserted that there was no finer
Charles Ethan Porter (1847-1923)
Prints & Publications
colorist in the nation. Porter 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. He was well received in the Connecticut press and much admired as a colleague and teacher. Despite his considerable achievements and education, Porter contended with harsh racism. He died in near total obscurity in 1923 and is buried close to his family home in Rockville, Connecticut. In 1987, a solo exhibition organized in Hartford’s historic Old State House brought his work back into focus. Awareness of his artistic contribution has grown to the extent that his works are now in prestigious museum collections, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and the New Britain Museum of American Art. His work is currently the subject of the traveling exhibition Charles Ethan Porter: African American Master of Still Life, organized by The New Britain Museum of American Art.