Breath of Life:
The Art of Charles Ethan Porter

Breath of Life: The Art of Charles Ethan Porter

Sylvia Yount
Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator in Charge of the American Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Connecticut-based, New York- and Paris-trained Charles Ethan Porter (1847-1923) is a painter I’ve come to deeply admire—both for his creative talents and complex personal history. As one of the first African American artists to exhibit his work nationally—and the only late 19th-century painter of color to focus largely on the still-life genre—I feel he has too often been overlooked by art historians, not only due to his racial identity and the challenges it posed for him in the White art world, both then and now, but for his primary focus on painterly floral imagery, often dismissed as ‘too pretty’ or ‘less serious’ than the work of his contemporaries. David Hartt’s centering of Porter as a subject of inspiration for A Colored Garden underscores the relevance of a reconsideration of his still-life production and three-decade career.

I had known Porter’s work from survey studies of African American art, yet my first opportunity to acquire an example as a curator was in 2013, for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), where I then served as chief curator and head of American art. Untitled (Chrysanthemums), a small oil from ca. 1881, [fig. 1] spoke to me not only for its lyricism, but for its distinctiveness as an “artistic” table-top still life. As a scholar of the American Aesthetic movement, I was aware that few artists of color had been credited with participating in the cultural phenomenon that promoted “beauty” as an artistic, social, and moral force, particularly in the domestic realm. This made Porter’s picture even more compelling to me, as he remains the only documented African American painter seemingly to have engaged with Aestheticism.

It’s not clear what drew Porter to this specific subject, but he was involved at the time with the Hartford’s Society of Decorative Arts, an organization established to help support impoverished women through the sale of Aesthetic decorative work. Porter was one of the few professional artists (and the only man) to participate in the society’s inaugural exhibition in April 1880, submitting a painted porcelain plaque featuring a loose grouping of pink roses on a reflective surface [fig. 2] — the only known decorative artwork produced by the artist. As the society offered porcelain decoration classes, it is possible Porter’s association gave him access to a kiln, encouraging him to pursue the form for artistic as well as economic motivations, given the popularity of tile painting among middle-class collectors in the Aesthetic age. Both the unusual medium and narrow horizontal format of the plaque suggest a novel approach to what would become a favorite subject for him.

Such “household art” also may have been inspired by Porter’s acquaintance with Samuel Clemens, the popular author who published under the pen name of Mark Twain. Clemens owned one of the Porter’s large peony paintings, and lent support to the painter’s professional aspirations. The author’s opulent Hartford home was designed, in 1881, by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Associated Artists—the leading design firm associated with the Aesthetic movement. That Porter’s experimentation with decorative subjects and formats in oil and watercolor painting dates to these years suggests this local encounter with a celebrated expression of Aestheticism had an impact on his practice.

Following his 1881-83 studies in Paris, the artist would go on to paint numerous still lifes of roses in traditional table-top settings rather than en plein air (outdoors). Porter’s feathery handling of the medium, blond tonalities, and formal compositions indicate an awareness of Henri Fantin-Latour, the painter whose intimate and impressionistic floral works the American had come to admire during his time in France.

Porter’s professional arc was short-lived. By 1900, his painting—precise and prolific till then—had become weaker and intermittent, and he exhibited less. Personal health issues—as well as poverty and racism—likely contributed to this decline. Sadly, after decades of success painting critically acclaimed still lifes of fruit and flowers, Porter died in obscurity. A resurgence of interest in his art dates to the late 1980s, due in no small part to the pioneering research of Connecticut-based librarian and museum educator, Hildegard Cummings (1929-2014).

In my nearly seven years heading The Met’s American Wing, it has been a true pleasure and privilege to strengthen our holdings of work by historical Black American artists, with Porter represented in concentration. Indeed, my first acquisition of any kind for The Met was Porter’s Untitled (Cracked Watermelon) [fig. 3], arguably, his most ambitious oil, which entered the collection in 2015. A tour de force of the artist’s mature style—perfected in Paris under the influence of the work of Fantin-Latour and, possibly, Edouard Manet—the still life demonstrates Porter’s bravura handling of paint as well as his skills as a colorist. Its subject—originally an African gourd brought to the New World by 17th -century Spaniards and cultivated by colonists—is also significant. Porter chose to paint what had been an earlier symbol of American abundance— and during the Civil War period one particularly associated with free Blacks—when it was increasingly defined by virulent stereotyping. By reclaiming the “American” subject in artistic terms (and with a French stylistic flavor), Porter challenged a contemporary racist trope—an interpretation that offers a greater intention of cultural meaning than previously accorded the artist.

While Porter’s floral subjects may strike some as lacking in relevance, given their resistance to being read in terms of social uplift and racial justice—a critical and unfair expectation of Black artists, then and now—the painter viewed his chosen path differently and “of more importance.” As he wrote in an 1883 letter to Samuel Clemens from Paris, “The colored people—my people—as a race I am interested in, and my success will only add to others who have already shown wherein they are capable, the same as other men.”

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