Porter, James A. 1905–1970
James A. Porter 1905–1970
Painter, educator, and art historian
Just as many art historians prefer the dust of library stacks to the colorful mess of the studio, many artists choose to remain ignorant of the artistic past that has, without their knowledge, shaped their work. James A. Porter, however, relished the challenges and pleasures of both pursuits. As an instructor at Howard University for over 40 years, Porter’s pioneering research into the work of early African American artists rescued a great deal of important art from obscurity. At the same time he worked with and inspired some of the 20th century’s most successful black artists. Additionally, Porter was an acclaimed painter in his own right, remaining active as an artist throughout his distinguished academic career.
Porter was born on December 22, 1905 in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, the Reverend John Porter, was a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal church, and religion played a major role in Porter family life. The Reverend Porter wanted James, one of eight children, to become a minister. Instead, James fell in love with drawing and painting, and from an early age he knew he wanted to be an artist.
The Porter family moved to Washington, D.C., when James was in high school. Once settled in Washington, the Reverend introduced his son to James V. Herring, the head of Howard University’s art department, in the hope that Herring would talk James out of pursuing his artistic dreams. The ploy backfired, and Herring, recognizing the young Porter’s talent, not only encouraged him to continue making art, but urged him to do it at Howard when he was done with high school.
Porter graduated from high school at the top of his class and was offered a scholarship to Yale. Since the scholarship covered only tuition, and he could not afford living expenses, Porter had to decline the offer. Howard University, on the other hand, was close enough to allow Porter to live at home, so he accepted a scholarship, arranged by Herring, to attend that school.
Porter entered Howard in 1923. He performed so well as a student that, upon graduating in 1927, he was offered a teaching position. In preparation for his career as an art instructor, he spent the summer studying art education at Columbia University in New York. Porter continued to hone his painting skills at the same time, studying at the Art Students League with the well-known painting tutor Dimitri Romanovsky.
In the course of his studies, Porter became acutely aware of how poorly the art community in the United States had kept track of African American artists. He began to take an interest in unearthing information about gifted but forgotten black artists of the past. While conducting
At a Glance…
Born James Amos Porter, December 22, 1905, in Baltimore, MD; son of Reverend John Porter; married Dorothy Burnett (a research librarian), 1929; child: Constance. Education; Howard University, B.S., 1927; studied with Dimitri Romanovsky at the Art Students league; New York University, MA, 1947; additional studies in Paris, Belgium, West Africa, Egypt, Cuba, and Haiti.
Professor, art historian, painter. Howard University, professor, 1927-1970; paintings and drawings in collections at Howard University, Lincoln University (MO), Harmon Foundation, IBM, Hampton Institute (VA), and National Archives; numerous exhibitions and one-person shows, 1928-; art department chairman and director of the Howard University Callery of Art, 1953-1970; illustrator for Physongs of the Deep South and Talking Animals, both published by Associated Publishers.
Awards: Harmon Foundation, honorable mention, 1929; Schomburg Portrait Prize, 1933; National Gallery of Art medal for distinguished service to art, 1966; Pyramid Club, Philadelphia, recognition for Achievement in Art; Association for the Study of Negro Life and History awards for book reviews published in the Journal of Negro History.
Member: International Congress on African Art and Culture; American Federation of Arts; Arts Council of Washington, DC; Symposium on Art and Public Education,
research in this area at the Harlem branch library, he met Dorothy Burnett, a research librarian whose specialty was black American writing before 1835. Porter and Burnett found that their areas of interest overlapped quite a bit. The two fell in love, and were married in 1929.
As his drawing and painting skills developed further, Porter began to gain recognition as an artist. In 1929 he won an honorable mention from the Harmon Foundation, an organization committed to honoring “distinguished achievements among Negroes.” The Harmon Foundation honored Porter again in 1933, awarding him its Schomburg portrait prize for his painting Woman Holding Jug.By this time, Porter had brought Dorothy back with him to Howard where she joined the staff of the university’s library. She eventually became director of the library, and earned a national reputation of her own for her work on early African American writers.
Porter’s technical excellence at drawing was apparent from the start of his career. More than any other form, Porter’s portraits and figurai compositions most frequently gained attention. His early paintings, such as “Sarah”-for which he was first noticed by the Harmon Foundation-showed a great deal of emotion. Many of his best works were portraits of family, friends, and Howard University luminaries.
During the 1930s, Porter traveled widely and broadened his knowledge of artistic styles around the world and throughout history. In 1935 he received a fellowship from the Institute of International Education, which he used to study medieval archaeology at the Sorbonne in Paris. When his work in Paris was completed, Porter traveled throughout Europe studying European and African art with the aid of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Returning to the United States, Porter earned his masters degree in art history from New York University in 1937. He then returned to Howard University to resume his teaching career.
Porter continued his research on African American artists. The next several years of work in this area resulted in the 1943 publication oí Modern Negro Art, a pioneering effort that has remained an important source of information on the topic ever since. Modern Negro Art was essentially a critical survey of African American artists through the time of its publication. The book brought many of the profiled artists back into the public eye after decades-sometimes more than a century-of obscurity.
Porter continued to travel in search of artistic insight over the next several years. During the 1945-46 academic year, he studied art in Cuba and Haiti, again with financial assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation. Much of the material he collected on this trip was used to develop a Latin-American art curriculum at Howard. Porter also spent a great deal of time during the 1940s studying the life and work of Robert S. Duncanson, a Civil War-era black artist from Cincinnati, Ohio. His research on Duncanson resulted in the 1951 publication of a monograph on the subject, as well as a major article in the journal Art in America.
After his trip to the Caribbean, Porter’s paintings began to take on a more decorative quality. On a Cuban Bus and Lydia, for example, showed a warm, realistic style that attempted to interpret the lively side of the African American spirit. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Porter also dabbled in more modern approaches, such as cubism--for example, Girl in a Shattered Mirror (1955)--and fauvism--Toromaguia (1962).
When Herring retired from Howard in 1953, Porter inherited the positions of art department chairman and director of the Howard University Gallery of Art. Although the administrative tasks associated with these jobs ate into his time for painting and research, Porter adjusted by regularly working well into the night. Dorothy Porter’s expertise in locating research references was also of great assistance. Porter made another trip to Europe in 1955, this time as a fellow of the Belgium-American Art Seminar. In Belgium, he followed up on his earlier research into Flemish and Dutch art of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.
In 1963 the Washington, D.C., Evening Star newspaper awarded Porter a grant to travel to West Africa and Egypt, where he was to research the art and architecture of those regions for his next book. He was so inspired by what he saw that he set up a studio in Lagos, Nigeria, and quickly created at least 25 new paintings. “You can’t help painting when you’re in Africa-the skies, the red earth, the verdure and the dress of the people-all of them reinforce one’s feeling for color,” Porter was quoted in Free Within Ourselves.
In addition to being quite conscious of color, Porter’s new paintings were in a style far more expressionistic than anything he had done before. Africa also had a profound effect on his thinking about art. He began to feel that African themes had been developing unconsciously in his painting for years, and he reexamined much of his past work with regard to that notion. Although he continued to work over the next several years on a book about the influence of African art in the West, it was never finished.
In 1966 Porter was one of 25 artists honored for outstanding achievement in the arts by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of the National Gallery of Art’s 25th anniversary celebration. The following year, Porter organized an exhibition as part of Howard’s centennial festivities. Entitled “Ten Afro-American Artists of the Nineteenth Century,” the exhibition included works by Edmonia Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Duncanson, and others whose artistic gifts had been ignored largely because of their race.
Toward the end of the 1960s, Porter was diagnosed as having cancer, and he became seriously ill. His illness did not stop him from traveling to Africa once more, this time to chair a conference in Rhodesia on Zimbabwean culture. His health continued to deteriorate, however, and he died on February 28, 1970, just a week after chairing a conference in the United States on African American artists.
In 1992 the Howard University Gallery of Art mounted an exhibition of Porter’s work. The retrospective, “James A. Porter, Artist and Art Historian: The Memory of the Legacy,” emphasized Porter’s unique ability to carry out the dual roles of artist and scholar, each with commitment and excellence. Porter’s third role, that of teacher, has had perhaps the most lasting effect of all. Starmanda Bullock Featherstone, a Howard art professor and guest curator of the 1992 retrospective, was quoted as saying in a Washington Post review of the exhibition, that “all his students say that they studied under the master, James A. Porter.”
Modern Negro Art, Dryden, 1943.
Robert S. Duncanson, Midwestern Romantic-Realist, Springfield, MA, 1951.b
Bearden, Romare and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, Pantheon, 1993, pp. 372-380.
Perry, Regenia A., Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art, Pomegranate, 1992, pp. 150-153.
American Visions, December 1992/January 1993, pp. 26-30.
Negro History Bulletin, October 1954, pp. 5-6; April 1970, p. 99.
Washington Post, November 27, 1992, p. B2.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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