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Artists Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter Photo

Fairfield Porter

American Painter, Printmaker, and Writer

Movement: Realism

Born: June 10, 1907 - Winnetka, Illinois

Died: September 18, 1975 - Southampton, New York

Fairfield Porter Timeline


"The right use of color can make any composition work."
Fairfield Porter
"The profoundest order is revealed in what is most casual."
Fairfield Porter
"Subject matter must be normal in the sense that it does not appear sought after so much as simply happening to one."
Fairfield Porter
"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.)
Fairfield Porter
"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."
Fairfield Porter

"Any artist has a style which determines and is the particularity of his communication."

Fairfield Porter Signature


Fairfield Porter was one of the foremost practitioners of representational painting in the American art world of the mid-twentieth 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.

Key Ideas

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.

Most Important Art

Fairfield Porter Famous Art

Under the Elms (1971-72)

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.
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Fairfield Porter Artworks in Focus:



Fairfield Porter was born in Winnetka, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He was the fourth of five children of James and Ruth (nee 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.

Porter acquired a love for art and literature at an early age. His mother, who belonged to the progressive Unitarian church, had sophisticated views on child-rearing and childhood education. From his mother, Porter learned to adopt a critical eye when viewing pictures and artworks.

Porter's father, James, held a degree in architecture from Columbia University and had designed the family homes in Winnetka, Illinois, as well as the Porter vacation home on Great Spruce Head Island off the coast of Maine. However, James was unable to make his living as an architect, and was instead obliged to assist his mother in managing the family real estate business during difficult economic times.

Education and Training

Fairfield Porter Biography

Porter entered Harvard University in 1924 with the intention of studying philosophy. He attended lectures delivered by the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, whom he would later credit as a major influence in his own development as an artist and writer. He also developed a strong interest in art history, studying under Arthur Pope, a well-known archeologist and historian of ancient Persian art. Porter wrote poetry during this time and also began to take an interest in leftist politics.

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Fairfield Porter Biography Continues

In the summer of 1927, Porter took a walking and bicycle tour of France, which eventually took him to Berlin and finally to Moscow. While in Russia he attended a lecture given by Leon Trotsky, an experience that would inform Porter's developing political views, especially during the years of the Great Depression.

After graduating from Harvard in 1928, Porter moved to New York and studied for two years at the Art Students League, where one of his teachers was Thomas Hart Benton. Benton's commitment to figurative painting had a lasting effect on Porter, as did his studies of the French Post-Impressionist painters Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard.

In 1931 Porter returned to Europe; on this trip, he concentrated on visiting museums and galleries. This travel, in addition to his studies at Harvard, afforded Porter a close and deep knowledge of nearly every movement and style in Western art, from ancient Greek sculpture to Old Master paintings to Pablo Picasso.

Upon his return to the United States, Porter set out to become more politically active and to create socially relevant art. He made artwork on behalf of the communist John Reed Club, taught drawing classes for the Socialist arts group Rebel Arts, and began work as an editor for a short-lived American Socialist tabloid called Arise!. It was during these years that Porter became interested in art criticism.

Mature Period

In 1932 Porter married Boston poet Anne Channing and the two settled in New York. They briefly lived in Porter's hometown of Winnetka in the late 1930s, then in New York again in the early 1940s. They had five children: John, Laurence, Richard, Katherine, and Elizabeth. The Porters struggled financially during the wartime years in New York, but they led a rich social life, becoming close friends with writer Edwin Denby and artists Rudy Burckhardt and Willem and Elaine de Kooning. Porter was one of the first people to purchase Willem de Kooning's art. In 1940 he wrote a piece on the artist for the Partisan Review; although it was not published, it is now believed to be the first review of his work ever written.

In 1949, the Porters moved to the seaside town of Southampton on New York's Long Island. Their new seasonal home would become the inspiration for many of Porter's landscape paintings over the next twenty-five years. Porter and his family divided their time between winters in Southampton and summers on Great Spruce Head Island in Maine (they also had a home in midtown Manhattan for several years). Porter and his wife experienced frequent personal difficulties, due to Porter's bisexuality, and an extramarital affair that Anne had in the early 1940s, yet the marriage endured.

Meanwhile, Porter was slowly establishing himself in the New York art world. As a bohemian and political leftist, Porter meshed easily with the New York School of intellectuals and Abstract Expressionist artists, but his representational and figurative paintings expressed something utterly different. While Porter continually expressed a deep interest in abstraction and believed that artists like Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns were true modern masters, he wanted to express a different reality in his own paintings, something closer to what he saw with his eyes, rather than limiting himself to formal experimentation. Porter found himself slowly as an artist, and he was already in his early forties when he had his first exhibition in New York in 1952, at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. From that point forward, the owner of the gallery, John Bernard Myers, represented Porter and gave him annual gallery exhibitions. His art was also included in six annual group exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art from 1959 through 1968.

Porter's most prolific period as an art critic was the 1950s. From 1951 to 1967 he wrote for Art News, reviewing roughly twelve gallery shows and museum exhibitions every month. In addition, Porter also became a regular contributor to the leftist periodical The Nation. In 1959 he wrote an essay on the American realist and landscape artist Thomas Eakins for a series on American painters published by Thomas Hess.

Late Years and Death

Fairfield Porter Photo

Throughout his career, in spite of his friendships with many members of the American avant-garde, Porter felt a stronger kinship with the European Realists, Naturalists, and Impressionists, from Rembrandt to Edgar Degas and Édouard Vuillard, in his art and his criticism. These artists, much like Porter himself, stressed a theoretical fusion of paint application and composition and believed that the human figure should be the chief concern of art. Porter frequently referred to the abstract artists of the New York School as the "idealists of New York painting," and throughout his career he expressed mixed feelings regarding Abstract Expressionism. "[They] isolate art from the details of actuality," wrote Porter. "They wish to see profoundly and are against illusion. Or perhaps they simply wish to seem to see profoundly."

In 1967 Porter took his wife and two daughters to Europe, his first trip abroad since his studies in the early 1930s. Porter wrote occasionally throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, but he did not produce nearly as much criticism as in the previous decade. He continued to paint through his final years; in fact, many of his most famous landscapes were painted in the last five years of his life. The first retrospective exhibition of his art was held from 1974 to 1975 and traveled to three venues: the Heckscher Museum on Long Island, the Queens Museum in Flushing, New York, and the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey.

Porter died on September 15, 1975 at age 68. A full-scale retrospective of his art was organized by the Boston Museum of Fine Art in 1983. Due to a donation by his wife Anne, the largest collection of his work and papers now resides at the Parrish Art Museum, not far from the Porters' home in Southampton, New York.


Porter was a lasting influence on many younger American artists who explored figurative painting in the 1970s and beyond, such as Alex Katz, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers, and Neil Welliver. He was also a friend to many poets of the New York School, including Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler, all of whom shared his interest in making art from the experiences of everyday life.

In his criticism, he praised and promoted certain artists, thus bringing their work to a wider audience; just a few of his subjects were Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Joan Mitchell, Jack Tworkov, and Richard Stankiewicz. Lastly, he had an aesthetic ally in his own brother Eliot Porter, a well-known photographer who specialized in images of the natural world and continued that work until his own death in 1990.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Fairfield Porter
Interactive chart with Fairfield Porter's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart


Pierre BonnardPierre Bonnard
Édouard VuillardÉdouard Vuillard
Willem de KooningWillem de Kooning
Joseph CornellJoseph Cornell
Isamu NoguchiIsamu Noguchi


Virginia WoolfVirginia Woolf
Bertrand RussellBertrand Russell
Carl JungCarl Jung
Clement GreenbergClement Greenberg


Folk ArtFolk Art
Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter
Years Worked: 1935 - 1961


Willem de KooningWillem de Kooning
Donald JuddDonald Judd
Anselm KieferAnselm Kiefer
Nell BlaineNell Blaine
Joan MitchellJoan Mitchell


James SchuylerJames Schuyler
John AshberyJohn Ashbery
Frank O'HaraFrank O'Hara
Peter SchjeldahlPeter Schjeldahl


Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
Social RealismSocial Realism

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Useful Resources on Fairfield Porter





The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art Recomended resource

By Justin Spring

Fairfield Porter Recomended resource

By John T. Spike

Fairfield Porter: Raw

By Klaus Ottmann

The Undiscovered Country

By Philip Guston, Fairfield Porter, John Baldessari, and Richard Hamilton

More Interesting Books about Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter: Paintings and Works on Paper

By Greg Lindquist
March 1, 2006

Trusty Fairfield Porter Is Better Than Ever

By Hilton Kramer
The New York Observer
April 17, 2000

Putting the Spotlight on Fairfield Porter

By Michael Kimmelman
The New York Times
October 9, 1992

Fairfield Porter: Master Realist Recomended resource

By Grace Glueck
The New York Times
June 8, 1984

More Interesting Articles about Fairfield Porter


Oral History Interview with Fairfield Porter Recomended resource

Conducted by Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art June 6, 1968

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