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At the height of the American avant-garde movement, Fairfield Porter’s realistic paintings defied the orthodoxy of Abstract Expressionism— and risked rejection by the art world. But today his true stature is becoming apparent: He may just be the best we have.
September 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 5
It is Porter’s “inward glow” that shines in Schuyler’s poems.
Light is the invisible subject of Porter’s paintings. It is there in the mellow gray of Calm Morning (1961), in which sea and sky fade into fog, while the oranges and yellows in the foreground are reminders of the brightness of the light from the absent sun. It is there, too, in the warmth of October Interior (1963), in which the foliage seen in the window blends into the potted palms on the table inside. Porter’s color is in a high key: intense, bright, unmuted, and brimming with light. “I never was one to paint space ” he once wrote. “I paint air.”
Porter was born on an unseasonably cold June day in Hubbard Woods, now Winnetka, just north of Chicago, in 1907. “It was snowing on the day I was born and I’ve had a cold ever since,” he liked to say. The Porter family came from patrician origins; T. S. Eliot was a distant relation. Fairfield, the fourth of five children, studied art history at Harvard (class of ’28) and at the Art Students League, where he took instruction from Thomas Hart Benton. He visited Russia in 1927, his junior year at Harvard, and took leftist politics to heart. But he grew disenchanted with the Soviet experiment, and his letters from the 1930s chronicle a continual quarrel with Marxism. In 1931 he went to Italy, where he met Bernard Berenson. The paintings of the Italian Renaissance proved to be a more durable source of inspiration than socialist politics for the young painter.
In 1932 Porter married Anne Channing, whom he had met when he was a student at Harvard, and the couple settled in New York City. They would have five children. John, their first child, was born with a serious mental illness, and it is possible that Porter’s development as a painter was slowed because of his preoccupation with the boy’s malady. “No psychiatrists or doctors seemed to know anything definite about him, and the result on me was that I really did nothing for about the first ten years of his life but try to somehow help him,” Porter wrote in 1958. “This was a most frustrating experience, because I was trying to solve something for which there was no solution.” Only after sending John to a foster home in Vermont did Porter feel he could have a career of his own. “It wasn’t until after the war that I could concentrate on painting, that means paint without thinking of my supposed failure as a father in this one case.”
Porter was influenced by Velázquez, whose masterpiece Las Meninas inspired Porter’s magnificent picture The Mirror (1966). In The Mirror , as in its source, the depiction of a busy interior doubles as a self-portrait of the artist in his studio. The Mirror centers on Porter’s daughter Lizzie, posed on a stool in his Southampton studio. But the mirror behind her reveals not only her back but the painter himself, brush in hand, standing in front of a wall filled with pictures (or representations of pictures, the Mona Lisa among them). In the adjacent window a tree shades a neighboring house. The picture resolves all the antitheses in it—father/daughter, mirror/window, inside/outside—with the twist that the painter emerges as not only the agent of aesthetic contemplation but also its observer. I met the grown-up Lizzie Porter recently and asked her about what it was like modeling for that painting. “It was hard to sit still,” she recalled. “I was only ten years old. But my father would talk to me or Jimmy [Schuyler] would read to me.”