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Fairfield Porter Photo

Fairfield Porter

American Painter, Printmaker, and Writer

Born: June 10, 1907 - Winnetka, Illinois
Died: September 18, 1975 - Southampton, New York
Movements and Styles:
Contemporary Realism
American Realism
"Any artist has a style which determines and is the particularity of his communication."
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Fairfield Porter Signature
"The right use of color can make any composition work."
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Fairfield Porter Signature
"The profoundest order is revealed in what is most casual."
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Fairfield Porter Signature
"Subject matter must be normal in the sense that it does not appear sought after so much as simply happening to one."
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Fairfield Porter Signature
"If you are vain it is vain to sign your pictures and vain not to sign them. If you not vain it is not vain to sign them and not vain not to sign them" (This was Porter's response on whether or not it was vain for an artist to sign his pictures.)"
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Fairfield Porter Signature
"It is the economic pressure on scholarship exerted by the universities that leads to the naming of movements in the arts, and once a movement is named, it is justified by words, and the literature around it gives it critical validity."
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Fairfield Porter Signature

Summary of Fairfield Porter

Fairfield Porter was one of the foremost practitioners of representational painting in the American art world of the mid-20th century. For several decades he created portraits, domestic scenes, and landscapes of the places he lived in, all depicting a relaxed and comfortable world that seemed to mirror his own affluent, well-connected existence. However, his art was often more nuanced than it appears at first glance. The influence of French Nabis painters Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard is obvious, yet Porter was also fully conversant in contemporary movements such as Abstract Expressionism, and his loose, energetic painting style owed much to his understanding of gestural abstraction. Porter was also a prolific critic whose work was published in several influential art journals; in his writing, as in his friendships and mentorships, he often championed other artists who sustained a commitment to realism and figuration.


  • Porter painted in a representational style at the height of Abstract Expressionism's dominance. He insisted on the relevance of authentically lived experience as subject matter, rather than pure ideology as a motivation for making art."The truest order is what you already find there, or that will be given if you don't try for it,"he wrote. "When you arrange, you fail."
  • Porter was vitally concerned with the close relationship between realism and abstraction: in successful art, he believed, one could not exist without the other. He once wrote: "The realist thinks he knows ahead of time what reality is, and the abstract artist what art is, but it is in its formality that realist art excels, and the best abstract art communicates an overwhelming sense of reality."
  • As an art critic, Porter also championed the next generation of representational painters working in figurative and realist styles. In this way he provided a link between movements like Social Realism of the 1930s and Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s.

Biography of Fairfield Porter

Fairfield Porter Photo

Fairfield Porter was born in Winnetka, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He was the fourth of five children of James and Ruth (née Furness) Porter. The Porter family fortune, based in Chicago real estate, was several generations old; both sides of his family also had deep roots in New England.

Important Art by Fairfield Porter

Progression of Art

Untitled (First Avenue)

Due to the financial hardships of World War II, Porter and his family rarely traveled outside New York City between 1941 and 1946, forgoing visits to their home on Maine's Great Spruce Head Island. During these years Porter was obliged to adjust his work patterns to city life. This untitled work from 1945 depicts Manhattan's First Avenue, presumably the corner just a half-block from the family home on East 52nd Street. The drab grays and browns of this painting, which are quite different from his vibrant use of color in later works, indicate Porter's somber mood, brought about by family strife and ongoing confinement to the city.

Oil on canvas - The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY


Katie and Anne

This scene of Porter's daughter Katherine and wife Anne is characteristic of the artist's oeuvre. Its interior setting, its golden light, and its intimate glimpse of family members in a moment of tranquility all show the influence of Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard on Porter's work. Yet the setting of the Porters' home is distinctly American and mid-20th century, from the rug on the floor to Anne's clothing.

Even while painting a spacious room and the landscape beyond its window, Porter insists on the shallowness of his pictorial space and the flatness of the colors he has placed upon the canvas: certain passages of brushwork, particularly in the curtains and the chair in the background, are nearly abstract. As scholar William Agee has written of this work, "The surface is a single entity, all of it simultaneously present. Porter sought, as did Matisse, to make every corner of the canvas alive."

Oil on canvas - The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC


The Mirror

Porter painted several self-portraits of himself in the studio, and here he combines a self-portrait with a portrait of his ten-year-old daughter Elizabeth in the family's Southampton house. The Mirror's composition is complex: Elizabeth faces the viewer (and, by implication, the artist), and the mirror acts as a picture-within-a-picture, reflecting Porter as well as the room and the landscape beyond the window. In this single work, Porter pays homage to several of his artistic heroes. One is Édouard Vuillard, of course, but he also refers to Henri Matisse, whose Carmelina (1903) used a similar device of a frontally posed girl and a mirror reflecting the artist, and Diego Velázquez, whose Las Meninas (1656) is the forerunner of all such self-portraits within studio portraits of young women. Leonardo da Vinci is even present, in a detail of the Mona Lisa (1503-17) pinned to the studio wall. Despite these art-historical allusions, however, the specificity of Porter's studio (with its wood-burning stove) and the architecture beyond the window grounds the picture in the reality of the 1960s and coastal Long Island. Porter is both inside and outside the picture, unifying its reality and its reflections, history and the present day, in a skillfully arranged configuration of images within images, while putting us in his place to consider what it means to perceive and represent the world around us.

Oil on canvas - The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri


Island Farmhouse

Porter routinely experimented more with color when painting outside, yet his subjects always remained identifiable. As he wrote in 1960 for The Nation, "Reality is stronger than thought, feeling, the means of its achievement, the artist's ego or his subjectivity. "The visual complexity of this landscape painting underscores the richness of Porter's family history. This scene includes the house that Porter's architect father had built on Maine's Great Spruce Head Island decades earlier; as Porter once said in an interview, every painting of this house was, in a way, also a portrait of his father. In this idyllic view, a boat sails on nearby Penobscot Bay and the family dog rests in the shady foreground. The intense yellows, greens, and blues suggest a Fauvist influence, but the cropping of the scene and the use of flattened forms in shallow pictorial space show Porter's interest in abstraction. Every element of this visual arrangement, even ephemeral things like the reflections in the windows to the shadow on the grass, has a weight and presence of its own, yet all the disparate parts fit together on the picture's surface like a perfectly designed jigsaw puzzle.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


Under the Elms

The ostensible subject of this well-known painting is his daughter Katie, posed in the yard of the family's Long Island home, yet Porter was less interested in capturing his sitter's personality than in visually integrating figure and background. The designs of the girl's vest are echoed in the broad patches of sunlight and shadow on the lawn and in the formations of the tree's foliage. This painting encompasses Porter's painterly style and philosophy: as a realist, he depicted locations and individuals from his own life, but he rendered those subjects with an expressive quality that recalled the turn-of-the-century Parisian masters. Under the Elms demonstrates why some of the great Abstract Expressionist artists admired Porter's art: in works like this one, he skillfully incorporated surface patterning and all-over compositional effects into representational imagery, while still suggesting a reality above and beyond the observed world. The landscape could almost be a fantastic scene within the girl's own imagination, as she stands on the threshold of adolescence.

Oil on canvas - Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia


Broadway South of Union Square

Broadway South of Union Square, a Manhattan street scene, dates to the final year of Porter's life. This cityscape places the viewer at the corner of Broadway and 12th Street, facing north towards the greenery and open public areas of Union Square. American Impressionists had been painting the area around Union Square since the late-19th century; Porter anchors his scene in his own time, however, with the inclusion of 20th-century traffic lights and automobiles. His abstract handling of paint is evident in the office buildings' grid-like banks of windows, the simplification of the distant trees, and the cursory treatment of the pedestrian's faces and clothing. Even the iconic Empire State Building, visible from its location twenty blocks north, is reduced to flattened planes and dark, angled edges. At the same time, this imagery of an urban street, from its vehicles to its signage, reminds us that Porter's career overlapped with such movements as Pop art and Photorealism, which brought representational imagery back into artistic vogue.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Fairfield Porter Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 25 Jan 2009. Updated and modified regularly
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