Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) is widely regarded as one of the most important American realist painters of the 20th-century. During a time when abstraction and expressionism dominated the canon, Porter stood apart by focusing on representational imagery and exploring light and color elements of Impressionism throughout his practice. Porter was undoubtedly influenced by his contemporaries, incorporating the ideas and techniques of artists such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline in his own work.
Porter’s style is abstract yet recognizable, keeping with the realist tradition of representation, yet simplifying images so that the viewer is aware of the abstract design of the surface. He forged a distinct vision out of two disparate styles: one, intimate and representational; and the other, colorful and abstract. Though he favored the watercolor medium early and late in his career, throughout his life he made pencil and ink drawings and painted in oils. An accomplished printmaker as well, Porter made more than 30 prints, primarily lithographs, that feature city and country scenes.
Born in Winnetka, Illinois, Porter was the son of a wealthy architect and gained an appreciation of art at a young age. He studied art history at Harvard University before enrolling at the Art Students League in New York, where he studied with Thomas Hart Benton. Porter was most inspired by French post-Impressionist artists, particularly Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, who explored paint and color as the most important aspects of a painting. Sharing the qualities of these artists, Porter put an emphasis on intimate subject matter and relationships between color and light. Expanding on 19th-century naturalism, he depended on traditional structure and pictorial composition. He was interested in the quality of the medium to render what is described as a painterly reality, avoiding conceptualism and a deliberately distorted or theatrical quality in his work. His imagery was often influenced by Southampton, New York and Penobscot Bay, Maine, coastal towns in which he spent most of his summers.
Porter made his first lithograph in 1931 and completed his first series of linoleum cuts in 1937. He exhibited in a group show at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1939. Porter didn’t gain notoriety until later in his career, making most of his major works during the last two decades of his life. His first solo show opened at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1951. He exhibited in six Whitney Museum Annuals between 1959 and 1968 and represented the US in the 1968 Venice Biennale. Major retrospectives of his work have been held at Cleveland Museum of Fine Arts, Ohio (1966); Heckscher Museum, New York (1974); and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1982). Other major exhibitions were held at Smithsonian Institution (2000); Colby College Art Museum (1977); Parrish Art Museum (1977, 1971); and Maryland Institute of Art (1972).
Porter was also a respected art critic and poet until his death in 1975, writing for such publications as Art News, Arise, The Nation, and the Partisan Review. An artist of wide intellectual interests, Porter was a friend of many younger contemporary artists, such as Alex Katz and Larry Rivers, and modern poets Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler.
His work is in major museum 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. His work has been the subject of several publications including Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art by Justin Spring (2000); Fairfield Porter: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Watercolors and Pastels by Joan Ludman (2001); Fairfield Porter: An American Classic by John T. Spike (1992); and Fairfield Porter: A Catalogue Raisonné of His Prints by Joan Ludman (1981).