Charles Ethan Porter

Artist Biography

Charles Ethan Porter was known for his finely detailed, light infused paintings of landscapes and floral still lifes. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, he was one of the first African American artists to be academically trained and to study at the National Academy of Design. He began his formal education in art at the Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, where he studied for two years before transferring to the National Academy of Design in New York in 1869. There, Porter studied alongside the romantic and impressionist painters Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917) and J. Alden Weir (1852–1919), and took classes with the neoclassical portraitist Joseph Oriel Eaton (1829–75). Porter’s success at the academy culminated with several exhibitions in 1873 and 1875 at the American Society of Painters in New York as well as at the National Academy of Design in 1876. Following these achievements, Porter returned to Hartford, where he opened his own studio, garnering almost immediate attention from The Hartford Daily Times, which praised the “fineness of execution” of Porter’s paintings. The Times wrote, “Do the people of Hartford know that they have among them an artist whose paintings, in minute accuracy of detail, and particularity in fidelity to nature in some of the most difficult points of color, are hardly surpassed by any painter?”[1]

The Times review caught the attention of author Mark Twain, who was also living in Hartford at the time. Twain was taken with Porter’s work and provided the artist with a letter of introduction as well as financial support to allow him to continue his artistic training abroad. In 1881, Porter enrolled in the École des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, where he gained exposure to the Barbizon school and the innovations of the impressionists. In 1885, he returned to the United States and opened a studio in New York before returning once again to Hartford. In 1889, he relocated to Rockville, Connecticut, sharing his studio with Gustave Adolph Hoffman (1869–1945), an impressionist and romantic painter whom Porter mentored. In return, Hoffman helped Porter handle the sale of his paintings when local buyers refused to deal directly with an African American artist. In 1910, Porter joined the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts and continued painting until the end of his life. Today, Porter’s work may be found in the collections of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Connecticut Historical Society, National Gallery of Art, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

1. Hartford Daily Times, September 11, 1879, quoted in Lisa Farrington, “Charles Ethan Porter,” African-American Art, A Visual and Cultural History, Oxford University Press, http://global.oup.com/us/companion.websites/9780199995394/ch5/bio/

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