At the end of his life, Charles Ethan Porter’s walls were covered with a career’s worth of paintings portraying apples, cherries, and corn, but he tragically couldn’t afford to put any actual food on his table. The African American still-life painter had supported himself with his art in the second half of the 19th century, but by the early 20th century his work was out of vogue. Left with a stockpile of completed canvases and little choice, Porter made some uneven trades to make ends meet.
He went door to door trying to sell still lifes for a pittance, or barter them for necessities. At least once, Porter gave away paintings to thank someone kind enough to provide him with room and board when he was financially strapped. It’s taken nearly a century for his later artworks, the ones often distributed under duress, to start resurfacing in public collections or on the market. Porter’s struggle, and the ensuing invisibility of his work, are as much a part of his story as his masterful paintings that dignify humble everyday objects.
Two of his canvases popped up at Seattle Pacific University in 2016, one depicting onions and the other a vase of lavender-hued petunias, gifted by a couple from Porter’s native Connecticut. “[William Sacherek and Lilo Lamerdin] are not art collectors and weren’t really sure what to do with this legacy they’d been left,” explains SPU art history professor Katie Kresser of the Porter paintings, which she has since researched and incorporated into her undergraduate curriculum.
Sacherek inherited the paintings in the 1960s from a family friend, Louis Hawley, who knew Porter and took him in for a while when the artist was destitute. Like most of Porter’s artworks, these paintings remained in private hands for decades and were completely unknown to scholars before the couple gifted them to SPU. “They are among the most prominently displayed works on campus,” notes Sacherek of the still lifes, which are on permanent display in the university library.
One database estimates that only nine of Porter’s 54 documented works (likely a fraction of his artistic output) are in museums. Even though he’s entered some prominent public collections over the past 20 years — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Birmingham Museum of Art, San Antonio Museum of Art, and Wadsworth Athenaeum — most of his paintings are still privately held, unidentified, or lost.
Porter’s life ended in obscurity, but his career began with promise despite the challenging time in which he lived. “[He is] the only historical Black artist to specialize in the still life genre,” explains Sylvia Yount, an American wing curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who acquired Porter’s “Untitled (Cracked Watermelon)” (ca. 1890) for the museum’s collection five years ago.
The painter was born to a free African American family in Connecticut in the 1840s. Growing up, he saved money from odd jobs in order to study art. Just a few years after the Civil War ended in 1869, he became the first African American to attend the prestigious National Academy of Design in New York.
After his studies, in 1878, Porter set up a studio in artsy Hartford, Connecticut. Local resident Mark Twain bought his work and hung it prominently in his dining room, and landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church visited his studio, also acquiring a painting, and complimented his use of color. Porter did well enough in Hartford to fund a trip Paris. In 1881 he held an auction in his Connecticut studio, selling 100 paintings for a total of $1,000 — enough to support himself for two years in the French art capital. While in Paris, he attended the impressive 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 soon after, but tastes had shifted by then. Hartford artists increasingly ignored his still lifes (still life was never a highly respected genre to begin with), and Porter’s precise, academic style looked more old-fashioned as Impressionism became the prevailing trend.
Art dealers and historians didn’t significantly embrace Porter until the 1980s. “If you turn the clock back 30 years, or 20 years,” explains Michael Rosenfeld of the New York-based Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, which has sold Porter’s work for roughly 30 years, “there weren’t so many people interested in African American art, and certainly not historic works.”
Just as the still life genre has held an ambiguous place in art history, Porter has taken a while to claim his place as a skilled and accomplished painter in an American art world that didn’t yet know what to make of him.
Now, though, it looks like Porter’s position is slowly becoming more secure. He received his first-ever museum show just over a decade ago, Charles Ethan Porter: African-American Master of Still Life, a 2008 traveling retrospective organized by New Britain Museum of American Art, beginning at the Studio Museum in Harlem and continuing to the North Carolina Central University Art Museum. For the past five years, Porter’s “Untitled (Cracked Watermelon)” has been on view at the Metropolitan Museum and it is now located in the Civil War and Reconstruction Legacies gallery, a transitioning space that Yount notes was “previously our gallery with the largest number of representations of Black subjects if not works by Black artists.” Two more Porter works were recently given to the Metropolitan Museum as fractional gifts; one of these will be included in a summer 2020 exhibition, New York Art Worlds, 1870-90.
And at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, the town where Porter’s career reached its peak, a still life acquired by the museum in 2001 hangs in the same dining room spot where Twain and his wife once hung another Porter painting (its current whereabouts are unknown). From Connecticut to Seattle, Porter’s artworks are becoming more visible and facilitating a broader understanding of Black art from a particular 19th-century moment when African American people were gaining greater freedoms.
In time, maybe more Porter paintings will transition from dining rooms to museums and help form a fuller picture of their creator. His is a life story still being pieced together, one still life at a time. When William Sacherek gifted his inherited Porter paintings to Seattle Pacific University three years ago, he made his hopes clear at the unveiling ceremony. “My prayer with these paintings,” he said, “is that no matter how obscure you think you are, you are going to change the world.”