(Winnetka, Illinois, 1907 - 1975, Southampton, New York)
Although Fairfield Porter is sometimes categorized as a realist painter, his style was in actuality a great deal more complicated, and it reflected many of the same concerns and influences of abstraction that dominated the visual arts in the Post World War II period. Porter’s career as a visual artist was highly atypical—while toward the end of his life he established himself as a successful painter, he was earlier recognized as a theorist, critic and writer. (1)
Porter was the son of a privileged family, centered in what is now Winnetka, Illinois. (2) His father, an architect, designed the family home, as well as a rustic summer retreat on Great Spruce Head Island in Penobscot Bay off the coast of Maine. The family was independently wealthy, which allowed both parents and children to turn their talents largely toward intellectual or creative pursuits—Fairfield’s elder brother, Eliot, became a renowned photographer.
Like his father, Fairfield Porter entered Harvard, and while there he became interested in the fine arts. Most of his university education was theoretically based (there were no practical, craft-based curricula to speak of on the university level in 1924), and when he left school in 1928 he moved to New York with the intention of becoming a painter. He enrolled at the Art Students League, but was generally unhappy with the conventional art school training regimen, and he left to embark upon a course of self-directed study that involved living and traveling in Europe.
Porter’s search for an artistic style was difficult, and he remained unsatisfied as artistic contentment steadfastly eluded him. Throughout the 1930s he continued to paint, however he focused his attention on raising his family. He had married the poet Anne Channing in 1932, and eventually they had five children. It was not until the late 1930s that he felt he had found useful inspiration, specifically in an exhibition of works by the French Post-Impressionists Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) in 1938 at the Chicago Art Institute. Porter later observed, “Why does one think of doing anything else when it’s so natural to do this?” (3) Still searching for his artistic voice, as late as 1945, Porter set up his easel in the Metropolitan Museum of Art to copy a painting by Tiepolo, virtually acceding defeat where his previous efforts were concerned and beginning again. After a few years of further experimentation, he credited his friend the painter Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) with “opening his eyes to the virtues of spontaneity and lightness.” (4)
In 1949 the Porters moved to Southampton on Long Island outside of New York. By the early fifties, Fairfield was a regular reviewer for Art News, the Nation and other art periodicals. His position as a writer and critic brought him into closer touch with contemporary art and ideas, and helped him to refine the elements that he felt were lacking in his own approach to painting.
The high point of Porter’s career as a painter was in the last decade and a half of his life when he began to paint with a fluidity that captured his connection to the world around him. He was largely indifferent to his subject matter, content to make portraits of his family and friends, still-life paintings from his surroundings in his day-to day-life, and the landscapes that he saw on Great Spruce Head Island, and near his home on Southampton. In these late paintings he was praised for his insight into form and light; although figurative, the works conveyed the respect for the medium that the abstractionists had made so important to modern viewers.
(1) Biographical information is taken from the essays in the 2001 publication Fairfield Porter: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Paintings, Watercolors, and Pastels.
(2) Porter’s maternal grandmother grew up on farmland that became the area of downtown Chicago known as the Loop. His father, while trained as an architect, spent most of his time managing the real estate interests of his family. See William C. Agee, “Fairfield Porter: An American Painter ‘Dense with Experience,’ in Joan Ludman, Fairfield Porter: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Paintings, Watercolors, and Pastels (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2001) p. 23.
(3) Ludman, p. 38.
(4) Ludman, p. 39.