American painter, prolific poet, and art critic Fairfield Porter produced figurative works during a period when Abstract art dominated the art scene. This skilled colorist was best known for his lonely landscapes and intimate interior scenes that portrayed contemporary American family life. Poet and art critic John Ashbery stated, “perhaps Fairfield Porter was the major American artist of this century”.
Fairfield Porter, son of the affluent James Porter and Ruth Furness, was born June 10, 1907, in the small village of Winnetka in Illinois. He was a descendant of a long line of leading families in American history, which included New England intellectuals, clergymen, and statesmen.
Ruth (a poet in her own right) introduced her son to poetry and art at a young age, taking him to his first art gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago where he was inspired by the works of Giovanni di Paolo. The visit awakened his desire to explore art and develop his inner talent.
At seventeen, Porter enrolled at Harvard University where he studied as a history major, under Arthur Pope, American archaeologist and art historian. He went on to attend the Art Student’s League in New York from 1928 to 1931, after an extended European tour. Although he received a certain amount of formal training, he was largely self taught. Mainly figurative in style, his paintings had an outward abstract quality recognizable in their representation, but boasted more of a realist representation.
His family ancestry’s participation in the intellectual and political life of the country for more than a hundred years often made him feel that a passion for art was insignificant. He spent his lifetime questioning the relevance and intellectual importance of his art work. At times, he even resented his family’s wealth as he believed that his stereotypical image of a rich boy would cause the outside world to take him less seriously.
When Fairfield Porter returned home, he married poet Anne Channing and spent the next twenty years honing his style of art. During this time, the majority of his paintings depicted family members, friends and places he was familiar with. He never painted nudes. Although married and struggling to raise a family of five including an autistic child, he indulged his bi-sexual nature. A love for poetry associated him with such poets as John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler with whom he had a brief affair and lived with as a house guest for over a decade.
The Porters survived the Great Depression living in Chicago and surviving on an income that Fairfield earned as an industrial designer for Navy projects, as well as on left over money from a trust fund. The family moved back to New York after the death of his father in 1939.
In 1945, Fairfield Porter enrolled at the Parsons School of Design and began writing art reviews for the ‘Partisan Review’. In 1949, the family moved to South Hampton where he spent the 50’s working as an art critic for such popular magazines as ‘Art News’ and ‘The Nation’. He never stopped painting during this period and went on to exhibit in one man shows at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery until 1970.
The artist’s marriage began to fall apart partly due to his sexual orientation, a problem he struggled with all his life. He found self-acceptance through counseling. He yearned to paint seriously again so he quit his job and devoted all his time towards his art. Some years later, he admitted that he was more proud of the reviews he had written than of the paintings he had painted.
Fairfield Porter’s paintings were displayed in every annual exhibition at the Whitney Museum from 1959 to 1968. He was one of ten artists to represent the United States at the 1968 Venice Biennale. He completed one of his last works ‘Island Farmhouse’ in 1969, and died of heart failure on September 18, 1975 at the age of sixty-eight.