Part 322: Charles E. Porter, African-American Scenic Artist
Before I was distracted by Daguerre’s chemical paintings, I was getting ready to complete my section on African-American scenic artists when another was brought to my attention. Gene Meier contacted me when I first mentioned Solomon E. White about an African-American panorama painter – C. E. Porter.
Charles E. Porter (1847-1923) worked on the cyclorama Niagara Falls for the Columbian Exposition. Meier shared information from a newspaper article, April 9, 1892 – the Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana). It reported that C. E. Porter, an artist if Meridian, Conn., was working on the cyclorama of Niagara Falls that would be presented at the World’s Fair. Porter was also noted as the first “colored man” admitted to the Art Academy of New York and had studied two years in Paris. That was all he knew about C. E. Porter, so I decided to do a little digging.
Midway into my search, I encountered an article in the Hartford Courant, “Charles E. Porter Paintings to be Auctioned” (9 Sept. 2012, page G1-G2). It was an ideal story for “Antiques Roadshow”; a woman is urged by her mother to purchase some paintings at an estate sale by an unknown artist who turns out to be remarkable. Thirty years later, the paintings are positively identified as the work of C. E. Porter. Luckily for me, his life was briefly summarized to generate interest in the upcoming auction. Someone had really done their research, and the story helped me locate additional information. This article also reported that Porter was one of the first African-American artists to exhibit at the National Academy of Design.
Here is what I discovered about C. E. Porter:
Porter was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and raised in the Rockville section of Vernon. The family was well connected to the New England abolitionist community, but exceedingly poor. Before reaching adulthood, he lost eight siblings due to childhood illnesses and war. Eight, I cannot imagine. Porter’s artistic talent was recognized by the local community at a young age, and he soon established a studio in Hartford. Porter gained the respect and admiration of many other, and much more well known, artists who lent their support over the years. One of his sponsors was Frederic Edwin Church. I was intrigued as Church has always been one of my personal favorite landscape artists. Then a second famous personality popped up in the story!
Mark Twain wrote a letter of recommendation for Porter to continue his studies at the Académie Julian in Paris. Wow. After studying abroad, Porter returned to the Hartford area where he established his residence at 23 Spruce St in Rockville. Near the top of Fox Hill, he had a studio at the summit.
As many artists, his fortunes slipped later in life and he ended up selling his paintings door-to-door in the town of Vernon. As many Vernon residents were hesitant to buy art from a minority, his friend Gustave A. Hoffman, a Bavarian artist, helped Porter sell his work. Hoffman (1869-1945) was a portrait painter, etcher, and lecturer. Born in Cottbus, Brandenburg, Germany, he studied at the Royal Academy in Munich before moving to America.
Sadly, Porter’s artwork was not always purchased, and on some occasions, he was forced to barter his artwork for food or clothes. Some historians have purported that when the community tired of trading goods for paintings, Porter was reduced to menial labor and had to cease painting for periods of time. Hildegard Cummings in “Charles Ethan Porter: African American Master of Still Life” (2007 exhibition at the New Britain Museum of American Art) wrote that “[Porter] was referred to as respectfully as Professor Porter and a disparagingly as Charles the Nigger.”
His tail continues as so many artists who never see fame in their lifetime. He sadly and slowly sank into obscurity until his death in 1923. Gradually losing his faculties, Porter continued to paint throughout his final years. I immediately got that mixed feeling of anger and helplessness. It never fails; extremely talented artists die penniless, only to have patrons crawl out of the woodwork and sell their art for exorbitant prices when they no longer need any care or financial support. Porter’s paintings now sell for the thousands and are included in collections at the Whitney in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. In Connecticut, his work is part of the collections at the Wadsworth Museum of Art in Hartford, Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Lyman Allyn in New London, Connecticut Historical Society and the New Britain Museum of American Art.
Well, there is more to the story that came to light as I scanned newspaper databases. The Hartford Courant reported, “D. W. Tryon, the artist, has been sketching in the neighborhood of Rocky Hill for a couple of weeks, and C. E. Porter has been working with him.” (1 Aug 1881, page 2).
This was Dwight W. Tryon (1849-1925) who was born in Hartford and raised on his grandparent’s farm in East Hartford. Tryon first sold his art in 1870, exhibiting at the National Academy of Design by 1873. Quick rise to fame, but he was also a white male. In 1876, Tryon auctioned all of his paintings to partially fund a trip to France with his wife where he enrolled at the atelier of Jacquesson de la Chevreuse and took classes at the École des Beaux-Arts. In addition to painting, Tryon was an art instructor at Smith College from 1886-1923. His personal papers are currently held at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. Charles Land Freer, founder of the Freer Art Gallery. Freer was a primary patron of Tryon.
In 1881 Porter prepared for his trip abroad and also auctioned off all of his studio collection (Hartford Courant, 25 April 1881, page 2). The article titled “Porter’s Paintings” reported, “The pictures, nearly one hundred in number, were painted with the strictest regard to artistic worth, from time to time during the past two or three years, and it is to satisfy a desire to acquire a finishing touch to his art education in Europe that Mr. Porter has decided to put them on sale at auction. The collection is quite varied in subjects and incudes some of his best efforts at fruit, flower, game, fish, interior and landscape painting. All the pictures have been elegantly framed by D. Vorce & Co. The sale will be held at the large studio in the Chesney building…”
Upon his return two years later, there was an art exhibition in Hartford of watercolors and oil paintings. The exhibition included not only Porter but also some very successful artists from the region (Hartford Courant, 16 Nov. 1883, page 2). The hope of this exhibit was to revive the Connecticut School of Design. I quickly scanned the names and found both Charles E. Porter and Dwight W. Tryon. Then I encountered a surprise – Mrs. Porter. It appears as though his wife was an artist too. I was unsuccessful with tracking down any of Mrs. C. E. Porter’s story or artwork. I finally managed to locate her married name in 1903 beyond a simple “Mrs.”
On January 13, 1903, the Pittsburgh Press posted the legal notification of the divorce between Charles E. Porter and Sallie G. Porter (page 15). I had to wonder if that was the beginning to his end.
To be continued…