Skip to content
Back to List

Fairfield Porter

Fairfield Porter (b. 1907, Winnetka, IL – d. 1975, Southampton, NY) is widely regarded as one of the most important American realist painters of the 20th century. At a time when abstract expressionism dominated the canon, Porter stood apart by focusing on representational imagery and exploring elements of Impressionism, such as light and color 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 recognizable style keeps with the realist tradition of representation, yet simplifies images so that the viewer is aware of the abstract design of the surface. The artist 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, he made pencil and ink drawings and painted in oils throughout his life. An accomplished printmaker as well, Porter made more than 30 prints, primarily lithographs, that feature city and country scenes. The artist made his first lithograph in 1931 and completed his first series of linocuts in 1937.

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 emphasized intimate subject matter and relationships between color and light. Expanding on 19th-century naturalism, he depended on traditional image structure and pictorial composition. He was interested in rendering what could be described as a painterly reality, avoiding conceptualism and a deliberately distorted or theatrical quality in his work. His imagery was often influenced by the coastal views of Southampton, New York and Penobscot Bay, Maine, where he spent most of his summers.

Porter did not 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 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 has since been included in solo and group exhibitions at the Long Island Museum (2019); Parrish Art Museum (2018, 1977, 1971), Whitney Museum of American Art (2017), Middlebury College Museum of Art (2011), Smithsonian Institution (2000), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1982), Maryland Institute of Art (1972), Heckscher Museum, New York (1974), Colby College Art Museum (1977) and the Cleveland Museum of Fine Arts (1966). Porter represented the United States in the 1968 Venice Biennale.

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).

Porter’s work is in numerous prominent museum collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Brooklyn Museum; Cleveland Museum of Art, OH; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; Detroit Institute of Art; Harvard Art Museum; Kemper Museum, MO; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art; Newport Art Museum, RI; Parrish Art Museum; Smithsonian American Art Museum; Spencer Museum of Art, KS and the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY.
Read more