Charles Ethan Porter

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Still Life (c. 1880)

Charles Ethan Porter (April 1848 – March 6, 1923) was an American still life painter and among relatively few African Americans of the nineteenth and early 20th century to work as a professional artist. A student at the National Academy of Design in New York City, he was one of the first African Americans to exhibit there. He attracted the notice of painter Frederic Edwin Church and writer Mark Twain, who encouraged his career and study in Paris. He worked in Hartford, Connecticut, and New York City.

Early life and education[edit]

Porter was born in 1847 into an African-American family in Hartford, Connecticut. His family moved to what was then the nearby village of Rockville (now part of Vernon, Connecticut) by the early 1850s. During the last year of the Civil War, he was drafted into the 29th Connecticut Infantry Regiment, a black regiment that served in Virginia. He graduated from the local high school in 1865.

In 1869, after two years of art study at Wesleyan Academy (now known as the Wilbraham & Monson Academy) in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, Porter went to New York City to study at the National Academy of Design. He was one of the first African Americans to exhibit at the Academy.


In 1873 and 1875, Porter held an exhibit of water colors for the American Society of Painters. He had an 1876 exhibit at the National Academy of Design.

In 1878, Porter returned to Connecticut, where he opened a studio in Hartford. In 1879, notable painter Frederic Edwin Church commended Porter's paintings.[1]

When Porter traveled to Paris several years later, he took with him a letter of recommendation from writer Mark Twain, who acted as his patron.[1] Like many American painters, he wanted the experience of studying in France, as well as hoping to heighten his appeal to clients. While in France, in 1881 Porter enrolled in the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs. He was in France from late 1881 to early 1884, probably also studying at the Académie Julian in Paris. He spent several months in the French countryside as well, including the village of Fleury, near Barbizon.

Porter returned to the U.S. in 1885, opening a studio in New York City. After two years, he returned to Hartford, where he opened a studio in 1887.

He left Hartford for Rockville in 1889, where he briefly had a studio in the Fitch Block. He later had a studio in the Tower on Fox Hill, which a family member then owned. In 1910, Porter became a charter member of the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts.[2]

Still Life with Vase of Pink and White Peonies, oil on canvas

Later, his fortunes declined, possibly because of health issues. He also encountered increasing racism and difficulty in selling his paintings during and after World War I.[citation needed] He sold his paintings door-to-door in Rockville, dying there in 1923 in virtual obscurity, around the age of 75.[2]

Since the late 20th-century, Porter is among minority artists whose work has been revived and reappraised. He is now known as the painter of minor masterpieces of American still lifes. He is most noted for fruit and floral still lifes. His work is held by New England institutions, the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art, and the Birmingham Museum of Art, which acquired one of his works in 2014, Porter's first painting to be held by a southern institution.[1]


  1. ^ a b c Graham C. Boettcher, "A Fruitful Gift", My Museum, January 2015
  2. ^ a b New Britain Museum of American Art, Charles Ethan Porter: African-American Master of Still Life (2008), exhibit and monograph catalogue

Further reading[edit]

  • Application to the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs
  • 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
  • Ifkovic, Ed. The Colored Artist: A Novel. (Createspace 2013)

External links[edit]