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Fairfield Porter (1907-1975)


1 of 6

Winter Landscape (Snow), 1958-61
oil on board
11 3/4" x 15 3/4", signed 

Peak Island and Lobster Boat, 1968
oil on panel
14" x 15 1/8", signed and dated

Trees in Bloom, 1968
oil on Masonite
20" x 18", signed and dated

Peak Island and Lobster Boat, 1968
oil on panel
14" x 15 1/8", signed and dated

Aline by the Screen Door, 1971
oil on canvas
60" x 48", signed and dated

Daffodils and Pear Tree, 1973
oil on Masonite
22 1/2" x 18 1/2", signed and dated


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Artist Information

“The profoundest order is revealed in what is most casual.”[1]

Known for lyrical compositions and a color palette influenced by his coastal surroundings in Southampton, New York and Penobscot Bay, Maine, Fairfield Porter had a career as both artist and critic. Born in 1907 in Winnetka, a wealthy suburb of Chicago, Porter grew up in a socially progressive home with parents who supported the arts. In 1912, his father, an architect, purchased Great Spruce Head Island in Maine and designed and built a retreat for the family. The following year, Porter spent the first of what would become a lifetime of summers on the island. Throughout his childhood, Porter traveled extensively with his family, and on a 1921 trip to Europe, he developed a love for Renaissance painting. In 1925, he entered the fine arts program at Harvard University, which at the time emphasized art history over art making. He graduated with a BS in fine arts in 1928 and headed to New York City, where he studied at the Art Students League with Thomas Hart Benton and Boardman Robinson. In 1931, he traveled through Italy, and in 1932, he returned to the United States and married poet Anne Channing, settling in New York. They had five children.

Financially, Porter was largely unaffected by the Depression of the 1930s. However, he was moved to action by the hardship he saw all around him and participated in conversations on how to alleviate economic and social inequality. He used his own funds to support the journal Living Marxism, the collaborative nature of which appealed to him, and he wrote and illustrated for Arise, another leftist publication. In 1936 after the death of his grandmother, Porter moved his family to Winnetka in order to be close to his parents. While in Illinois, he exhibited locally and became a member of the Chicago Society of Artists. In 1942, Porter’s father died, and Porter returned to New York, where he met and befriended New York School poets and painters John Ashberry, Robert Dash, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Alex Katz, Frank O'Hara, Neil Welliver, and Jane Wilson. He eventually moved to Southampton, where many of the abstract expressionist painters lived and painted. In 1951, after a friendly dispute with Porter over an Arshile Gorky exhibition, Elaine de Kooning suggested he take over her monthly column at ARTNews. Porter stayed there for seven years, and in 1959, he began writing art criticism for The Nation. His writing has been praised for its sensitivity to the diverse trends in the New York art world and its refusal to tell artists how to paint.

Porter’s favorite statement about painting came from Henri Matisse: “Every corner of the canvas should be alive,” and his work adheres to this idea, whether the painting is a still life, a landscape, a portrait, or a scene from everyday life. Porter’s dynamic compositions of vibrant color were held in high regard by his artist contemporaries, and in the 1950s, through the recommendation of the de Koonings, Larry Rivers, and Jane Freilicher, he began to exhibit at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York. His first exhibition there, held in 1952, was warmly received by his fellow artists. However, critics were considerably less open-minded about his figurative expressionism. It was not until the mid-1960s that Porter’s work began to get the attention it deserved. In 1966, the Cleveland Institute of Art mounted his first retrospective exhibition, and from 1969 to 1970, he spent a year at Amherst College teaching and painting as an artist-in-residence. Solo exhibitions followed almost yearly at Hirschl and Adler Galleries until his death on September 18, 1975.  

Porter’s work underwent a reassessment after his death, helped by a major posthumous exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts called Fairfield Porter: Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction. As the show’s title expresses, the predominance of abstract expressionism in midcentury American modernism eclipsed the work of Porter and other artists like him who chose to work in a figurative vein. The irony of this occlusion is that Porter championed the work of abstract expressionists in his criticism, and they were equally enthusiastic about his art. Today Porter is recognized as one of the great American artists of the postwar period. His work is in the collection of over hundred public collections including The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Museum of Modern Art, and The Whitney Museum of American Art. He has been the subject of several monographs including Fairfield Porter: An American Classic by John T. Spike (1992: Harry N. Abrams) and Fairfield Porter: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Watercolors and Pastels by Joan Ludman (2001, Hudson Hills Press).


[1] Fairfield Porter quoted in Justin Wolf, “Fairfield Porter,” The Art Story, http://www.theartstory.org/artist-porter-fairfield.htm. Accessed May 2010.