Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Charles Ethan Porter: Many Firsts as a Determined Black Artist

 We are close to the end of February and Black (Art) History Month. Last week, was about a contemporary artist and this week it's about a long-ago artist, who enjoyed so many "firsts" in his quest and determination to live his life as an artist. 


 

His name? Charles Ethan Porter (1847-1923) was born to a mill worker and a housekeeper. They were free, but with a large family and low-pay work were very poor. Charles Porter had to do hard work at an early age to pay his way through school. Of his many siblings, he was the first to graduate from high school.

 

 

As an artistic prodigy, he was the first black man admitted to the prestigious National Academy of Design. Porter's talent was such that he earned the support of benefactors including the governor of his home state, Connecticut and Mark Twain.

After completing his program at the academy, Porter's determination led to another first. He sold all of his art to pay for his studies in Paris - the first black artist to do so. In spite of his cultural differences in France, he stayed for two years learning all he could from master teachers.

Returning to the USA, he eschewed the growing European style of Impressionism and became known as one of the American "nature mystics." 

 These were artists who preferred still live paintings of flowers and produce along with scenes in nature. He was able to garner support for his art and live modestly until post Civil War.

 

The full sting of being a black artist meant he couldn't even sell his art going door to door. He would teach students, auction his art and barter his art to support himself. Finally, in failing health, he returned to the town where he was born to live out his remaining years in total obscurity.

 


 

 

It was a solo exhibit of his works in 1987 that brought his work back to awareness for his artistic contribution and now his works reside in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Seattle Pacific University and several other well-known galleries.