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Artist Charles Ethan Porter has often been left out of the history books. 

A contemporary of sculptor Edmonia Lewis and painters Robert Seldon Duncanson and Edward Mitchell Bannister, Porter is forgotten in part because of his focus on still lifes. At the time, they were low in the hierarchy of painting genres.

We know little of Porter’s life, but it is clear that he was determined to find success as an artist. As he once wrote to his friend author Mark Twain, Porter wanted to show that African Americans were “capable the same as other men.” 


Charles Ethan Porter, Still Life with Apples, 1886, oil on canvas, Gift of Lisa Unger Baskin, in honor of Emma Nogrady Kaplan and Sidney Kaplan, 2013.131.1

1. He was known for still life paintings, especially of apples

Porter is the first known professional Black artist to focus on still lifes, although older painters like Robert Seldon Duncanson did paint some. Featuring floral arrangements and fruit, Porter’s works built on earlier American still life paintings. Artists such as Raphaelle and James Peale were the first in the country paint in this new genre, which they popularized in the first half of the 19th century.

Apples were one of Porter’s specialties. One Hartford journalist wrote that his paintings of the fall crop were “the most perfect specimens of fruit painting we have ever seen,” while another termed them “extraordinary productions.”

Charles Ethan Porter, Autumn Landscape, c. 1887, oil on canvas, Courtesy of SCAD Museum of Art, Permanent Collection, Gift of Dr. Walter O. Evans and Mrs. Linda J. Evans

2. He also painted landscapes and at least one portrait

While his still life paintings were popular, Porter also worked in other genres. He once traveled to New York’s Adirondack Mountains to try his hand at painting his natural surroundings. His pursuit of landscape painting may have been inspired by none other than its star, Frederic Edwin Church. Church had reportedly visited Porter’s studio a few months earlier. He bought paintings from Porter and said that the artist had “no superior as a colorist in the United States.”

Porter is also recorded to have painted at least one portrait. But, as with many of his works, its location is unknown.


The National Academy of Design building at the corner of New York City’s 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue photographed in 1894. The building opened in 1865, just a few years before Porter attended. He lived in a YMCA building across the street. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

3. He was the first Black artist to attend the National Academy

After taking drawing lessons as a child and studying painting in high school, Porter was accepted to the National Academy of Design in 1869. He is believed to be the first Black student to attend the premier art school. Porter studied there through 1873, starting with drawing from casts of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and rising to painting live models.

While attending the academy, Porter had the opportunity to exhibit his work there. It was one of the best ways to make a name for himself in the 19th-century art world. While his paintings received attention in the New York Times, Porter still had to teach art on the side to support his studies.

Charles Ethan Porter, Butterflies and Flowers, about 1878, transparent and opaque watercolor over very faint indications of graphite on wove paper, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: Purchased through the Phyllis and Bertram Geller 1937 Memorial Fund

4. He became known as “the Hartford artist”

Porter was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and raised in nearby Rockville. He returned to Hartford in 1877 or 1878 to start a studio. While his still life paintings were too traditional for New York collectors, Hartford critics and collectors admired them. The level of detail in his studies of insects and birds stunned the Connecticut crowd.

Porter joined a line of Black artists who found success in Hartford, including photographer Augustus Washington. But even in the liberal-minded city, early news reports about Porter’s work often qualified him as a the “colored painter.” Eventually, he would be known just by his name or as “the Hartford artist.”

Charles Ethan Porter, Peonies in a Vase, c. 1885, oil on canvas, Gift of William and Abigail Gerdts, 2018.44.124

5. He auctioned all his art to study in France

In 1881 Porter decided to travel abroad to continue his development as an artist. He auctioned all the nearly 100 paintings in his studio and raised $1,800. He hoped the money would be enough to support him for a couple of years. Porter arrived in Paris with letters of introduction from illustrious Hartford citizens, including one of the most famous American writers of the time—Samuel Clemens, who wrote under the pen name Mark Twain.

We don’t know much about Porter’s time in France, but he is believed to have attended the École Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs (National School of Decorative Arts). Art historians think he may have studied the work of Henri Fantin-Latour, then the best-known still life painter in France, and his predecessor Jean Siméon Chardin. Porter’s time in France clearly inspired a change in his style. One Hartford Courant reviewer wrote that, following his return to the United States, his “dainty, almost finicky, work we’re so familiar with, has been superseded by a broader, freer style.”


Charles Ethan Porter, Floral Still Life, between 1880 and 1890, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, Museum Purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation Fund, 2018.48.

6. He believed his art could show that Black artists were as talented as white artists

Less than two years into his time in France, Porter’s money ran out. He wrote to Mark Twain, asking him for help. His letters to the writer are the only known first-person accounts from Porter. On April 4, 1883, he wrote:


Now 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, 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.


Conscious of his place in an art world dominated by white men, Porter was eager to show what he, and other Black artists, could do.

Charles Ethan Porter, Mountain Laurel, 1888, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Alfred T. Morris, Sr., 2000.10

7. He struggled his entire career to make a living, but never gave up

Porter was determined to continue painting, despite facing challenges. He did what he needed to do, including taking on students and auctioning or even bartering his paintings to make ends meet.

After years of trying to “make it” in New York or Hartford, Porter moved back to Rockville by the turn of the century. No paintings by him date to the 20th century. However, two photos of Porter with students show that he spent his final years teaching a new generation of artists. Today, his paintings continue to inspire artists like photographer Zora J Murff.



January 12, 2024