Charles Ethan Porter

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Charles Ethan Porter
Charles Ethan Porter.jpg
DiedMarch 6, 1923
EducationNational Academy of Design
Ecole des Arts Decoratifs
OccupationVisual artist
Known forStill life painting
Notable work
Untitled (Cracked Watermelon), Metropolitan Museum of Art [2]

Charles Ethan Porter (1847 – March 6, 1923) was an African-American painter who specialized in still life painting. A student at the National Academy of Design in New York City, he was one of the first African Americans to exhibit there. He was the only African-American artist at the turn of the century who painted in still life.

Early life and education[edit]

Civil war soldier, 1872

Porter was born most likely in 1847 in Hartford, Connecticut.[Notes 1][1] His father was possibly a mill worker and his mother worked as a servant.[3] Porter's family moved to what was then the nearby village of Rockville (now part of Vernon, Connecticut) by the early 1850s.[4] The family suffered many losses when Porter was young. They endured poverty and tragedy just a few years after moving to Rockville. Porter lost seven of his siblings to illness and one to war between 1858 and 1868. [1]

Boy and Book, c 1880

Porter's brothers, Joseph and William, enlisted in the Union Army in 1863. Joseph joined the 29th Connecticut Infantry Regiment (Colored) and William joined the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored). Joseph was killed in Virginia in 1864, and buried in Rockville just days before his regiment returned home. William became seriously ill with malaria, and was granted a disability discharge in January, 1865.[1]

Porter was his family's first child to attend high school, graduating in 1865.[1] Porter left Rockville in 1868 to study painting in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, a town twenty miles north of Rockville. In 1869, after two years of art study at Wesleyan Academy (now known as the Wilbraham & Monson Academy), Porter enrolled at the prestigious National Academy of Design in October 1869, becoming the first African-American admitted to the school.[4]

Porter attended the art school until the spring of 1873. While at the school, and for the first time, Porter began exhibiting his work. A painting titled, Autumn Leaves, was shown in the school's summer exhibition. In May of 1870, Porter was among eight art students whose drawings, as part of a large school exhibition, were given special mention in the New York Times. [3] Porter received widespread praise and attention for his work during his four years at the National Academy, earning the support of prominent benefactors such as Frederic Edwin Church, and famous author, Mark Twain, who lived in Hartford.[3][5][1]


Peonies in a Bowl, 1885,

In the fall of 1873, Porter studied art with Joseph Oriel Eaton for a year, a prominent portrait and landscape painter. Porter studied and painted in New York City from fall thru spring every year, but would return home to Rockville in the summer to paint and teach art classes. From 1873 to 1875, Porter started to sell his work, one painting selling for $175, considered a high price for the time period and artist's level of experience. There is little known about Porter during this time period. Art collectors were losing interest in American artists and traveling overseas, buying contemporary French art and Old Masters. Many young American artists, during the economic downturn, began studying overseas in the 1870's. Art sales by American artists would not recover until the 1890's.[1]

In 1878, Porter moved to Hartford, Connecticut and established a studio. The city was experiencing tremendous growth, its wealthy citizens were interested in art and culture, and had the money to begin or add to art collections. In Hartford, Porter's traditional academic art education made him a standout compared to the many self-taught artists who had recently moved to Hartford. He was one of the few artists at the time, and the only man to specialize in still life painting.[1][4] While in Hartford, Porter created many of the still life paintings that he is known for today. He created a number of paintings of fruit that were not typical of the period, in their absence of tableware, porcelain and glassware and the unusual touches like the insects. Porter's apple paintings were a commercial success and he painted apples for much of his career.[1]

While in Hartford, Porter spent a good deal of time outdoors. He was very interested in nature, which is reflected in his paintings at the time of butterflies, dead birds, insects and plants. In 1879, Porter's work gained the attention of influential artist Frederick Edwin Church. Church visited Porter, purchased a few paintings and declared Porter to "have no superior as a colorist in the United States". Church encouraged Porter to study and paint landscapes. In 1880, Porter visited the Adirondacks for two months of sketching and painting. Porter declared at the time that he would focus his work primarily on landscapes, except for commissioned still life paintings.[1]

Yellow Roses in a Vase, 1890

ON March 19,1881, the Hartford Daily Courant reported that Porter was planning to move to Europe to study art. The article stated that Porter would be selling at auction all his inventory of paintings. It went on to say that the artist planned to study abroad for two years. Half of the paintings sold immediately for a total of $1062. Additional sales resulted in a total of $1800 for Porter's paintings. In early November of 1881, Porter sailed for Liverpool. After an art tour of London, Porter traveled to Paris, with letters of introduction from Hartford's most prominent citizens, including Samuel Clemens, the author known as Mark Twain.[1]

Apples on the ground, 1878

In 1881, Porter traveled to France to study the works of the influential artists of Barbizon school of painting. He enrolled in the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs in 1881 and studied art until he ran out of money and returned to the Hartford in 1884. Porter hosted an art exhibition and auction in December, 1884 of 100 paintings from his time in France. His new work was praised by the Hartford Evening Post, but the auction did not get the attendance or make the sales that Porter had hoped for.[1]

In early 1885, Porter returned to New York City and opened a studio. He exhibited his work at the National Academy of Design and continued to paint. He spent the summer of 1885 in Rockville, Connecticut, teaching art and painting landscapes. By November of 1886, Porter was back in Hartford again. He partnered with local artist Daniel Wentworth to hold auctions in 1887 and 1888, Wentworth contributing landscapes and Porter contributing primarily still lifes. The paintings sold for prices ranging fro $6 to $100.[1][5]

By 1889, Porter had left Hartford for the last time. He spent most of the year in New York City and summers in Rockville, Connecticut until 1897 when he settled permanently in Rockville. The quality of Porter's work declined after 1900 and interest in his work subsided. Porter died, March 6, 1923, at the age of 75.[4]

Image gallery[edit]


  1. ^ Porter's birthdate has been cited by different sources as "1847", "1848" or "1849". On source uses Porter's brother Joseph's birthdate as Porter's. (Porter's mother, Mary Porter listed her son's birthdate as April 19,1848 when she filled out an application for a War Department Parents pension (for Porter's brother). Porter's gravestone lists 1849 as his birth, his obituary indicates 1847 (listed age as 76). In 1881, in Paris, Porter signed a document listing his birth as 1847.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Cummings, Hildegard (2007). Charles Ethan Porter:African-American Master of Still Life. University Press of New England. p. 13. ISBN 978-0972449762.
  2. ^ "Metropolitan Museum of Art". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 17 October 2018.
  3. ^ a b c Kresser, Katie. "Charles Ethan Porter: Tenderness and Tragedy". Seattle Pacific University. Retrieved 17 October 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d "Charles Ethan Porter, African American Still-life Painter". Connecticut Retrieved 17 October 2018.
  5. ^ a b Lewis, Samella (2003). African American Art and Artists. University of California Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0520239357.

Further reading[edit]

  • Krieble, Helen et al., Charles Ethan Porter, 1847?-1923 (exhibition catalog, Connecticut Gallery, 1987)
  • New Britain Museum of American Art, Charles Ethan Porter: African-American Master of Still Life (2008), exhibit and monograph catalog

External links[edit]