Artist Bio

Back to Artist Listings

Porter, Charles Ethan

(1847/50-1923) Born the son of an impoverished and illiterate laborer, Charles Ethan Porter managed to become one of the first, if not the first African-American to study at the National Academy of Design. He traveled to London and Paris in the 1880s to continue his studies, a pattern followed by nearly all 19th-century American painters who had the means to do so. On his return, he set up a studio in New York but financial difficulties forced him to return to his family home in Rockville, Connecticut, where he became active in the Hartford art community. His still lifes embraced a soft, lush quality, differentiating it from much previous American still life painting, which was often characterized by a virtuosic but harder-edged technique. Porter’s work embodied a soft focus while capturing a naturalistic immediacy, qualities also apparent in his landscape painting. He became a much-admired teacher to aspiring artists, and counted among his friends and patrons Frederic Edwin Church and Mark Twain. Despite his success in Hartford, Porter attempted several times to return to New York, but these forays were short-lived. Notwithstanding the enthusiastic support of the Hartford art community and his students, Porter encountered increasing difficulty selling paintings later in his career. He re-worked many of his canvases, sometimes painting over them two or three times. His financial circumstances declined precipitously, and Porter spent his final years in poverty, selling paintings door-to-door or bartering them for food. A neighbor reminisced, “He was very kind to us children...always welcoming. We were very poor, but nothing like Mr. Porter. The inside of his house was barren with almost no furniture. But his paintings were on the wall and I remember them.” Porter died in 1923 and is buried in Grove Hill Cemetery in Rockville, near his Fox Hill home. No items found.