Catalog Essay | September 17, 2020 | Lot 37
Charles Ethan Porter was born to a free African American family in Rockville, Connecticut in 1847. His early interest in drawing was inspired by the flowers in his mother’s garden and in other Connecticut fields. He saved money throughout his childhood by doing odd jobs in order to attend art school. Just a few years after the Civil War ended in 1869, Porter became the first African American to attend the National Academy of Design in New York.
After his studies, in 1878, Porter set up a studio in Hartford, Connecticut, where his fruit and flower paintings were purchased by area collectors. Local resident and author Mark Twain was a patron of his and landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church visited his studio, also acquiring a painting, and complimented his use of color.
In 1881, at the age of 34, Porter held an auction in his Connecticut studio, selling 100 paintings for a total of $1,000 which was enough to support him for 2 years in Paris, where he studied at the French National Academy for Decorative Arts and Académie Julian.
“I am aware that there are a goodly number of my Hartford friends and others who are anxious to see how the colored artist will make out,” Porter wrote to Twain from Paris in 1883. “But this is not the motive which impresses me. There is something of more importance, the colored people — my people — as a race I am interested in, and my success will only add to others who have already shown wherein they are capable the same as other men.”
Porter returned to Connecticut in 1883 and for the next several years he created some of his most powerful works. It is said that a significant part of his output in these years still hangs unrecognized on the walls of Hartford homes. His use of both light and dark colors to create dramatic renderings of flowers is evident in the current offering, Peonies.
By the time of his death in 1923, racism had cast him into complete obscurity, and it was only very recently that he is now once again recognized as one of the country’s outstanding late nineteenth-century artists.