Inspiration – Fairfield Porter

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Every once in a while I think, “painting is so difficult.” Truthfully it is.  It is work to see beauty in everything and even more to be capable of expressing it in paint. It takes a keen mind and a passionate heart far beyond the rigors of technique alone. It seems to me that every time Fairfield Porter put brush to canvas it was with a precise intention and the  sheer joy of being alive and looking at life. His paintings continue to inspire me to look here and now. To be not only present, but to search for beauty in my immediate surroundings.

There has been so much written about and by Porter in addition to his paintings, which speak volumes.  I came across this interview in which “Porter speaks of his family background and Harvard education; the Art Students League; his involvement with Marxism and his work as an art critic for ART NEWS and THE NATION. He discusses his portrait commissions, his choice of subject matter, theories of realism versus abstraction and drawing versus color, and the role of the unconscious and the accidental in his art. He recalls Thomas Hart Benton, Jacques Maroger, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Walter Auerbach, Thomas B. Hess, Clement Greenberg, and Alex Katz.” (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.) I thought I would share it with you.

In addition to this interview there are many other readings and resources to be found online. There is a fantastic blog post about Porter with many links and quotes on Painting Perceptions.

I have included additional links after the article including the original source. I hope you enjoy!

Interview with Fairfield Porter
Conducted by Paul Cummings
In Southampton, New York
June 6, 1968

Biographical/Historical Note: Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) was a painter and critic from Southampton, N.Y.

The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Fairfield Porter on June 6, 1968. The interview took place in Southampton, New York, and was conducted by Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and others.

Funding for the digital preservation of this interview was provided by a grant from the Save America’s Treasures Program of the National Park Service.


PAUL CUMMINGS: It’s June 6 and Paul Cummings talking to Fairfield Porter in beautiful Southampton. You were born in Winnetka?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: Winnetka, Illinois, June 10, 1907.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Tell me about living there. Do you come from a large family? Small family?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: Five children. One sister, who is the oldest. Next is my brother Elliott, who is the photographer, a very famous photographer. Then another brother, then me, and then the younger brother.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Are they all involved in the arts?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: No. Only Elliott in photography. But he’s an M.D. He taught bacteriology and endocrinology at Harvard Medical School but never practiced medicine. Then he gave it all up for photography, which he had done since he was a little boy–taking bird pictures, you know, hiding in blinds and taking pictures of birds opposite their nests. So that really his first interest was photography.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Your parents must have decided you all needed good educations, because you went to Harvard.


PAUL CUMMINGS: What kind of place was Winnetka to live in then? Did you live there till you went away to college?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: Yes. We went to Maine in the summers. Winnetka is a wealthy suburb of Chicago. It s like Scarsdale or Bryn Mawr.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, did you go into Chicago?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: Yes. I remember being taken to the Art Institute by my mother, and I remember the first paintings that…. I remember I always liked to see paintings, and the paintings that I can remember in the Art Institute are Giovanni di Paolo. I think it was because it had the Beheading of St. John the Baptist in it, which was sort of fascinatingly gory.

PAUL CUMMINGS: That appealed to youth.

FAIRFIELD PORTER: When I was twelve … And Rockwell Kent I liked very much. Then I remember, when I was about twelve or thirteen, an exhibition of Picasso, that Egyptian period, those great big heads. That impressed me very much. I thought, if this is what painting is today, it’s a significant activity.

PAUL CUMMINGS: This must have been around 1920 or so.


PAUL CUMMINGS: Was that your first adventure into the museum?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: Well, I was always good at art in public school which we went to.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Did you do drawings when you were very young?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: Yes. I copied Howard Pyle and I copied photographs. I remember once in art class in grammar school. Everybody was supposed to bring a flower to school and paint it, and I didn’t bring anything. So they gave me a piece of timothy grass. I had a brush that was crooked; it was bent. And the teacher liked my rendering of timothy grass better than anybody else’s thing. She held it up before the class and said: Look what he did, and with that terrible brush.

PAUL CUMMINGS: That’s interesting. That was when?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: That was in grammar school.

PAUL CUMMINGS: What kind of schools did you go to?

PAUL CUMMINGS: They were very good public schools. Since then, since my time, the Winnetka public school system has become one of the best in the country. In my time, it was good; that’s all– good, ordinary public school.

FAIRFIELD PORTER: What kind of family background did you have?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: My father was an architect. He built the house in which we lived. I still think it’s one of the most beautiful Greek revival houses in the United States. I like it better or just as well as anything I’ve seen in Virginia, which is a little earlier, of course, not Greek Revival. But he didn’t remain interested in architecture.

PAUL CUMMINGS: So what did he do?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: He just looked after his own affairs and his own real estate in Chicago.

PAUL CUMMINGS: So you had a very comfortable family life.

FAIRFIELD PORTER: Very comfortable. Yes.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Were you involved with your brothers and sister very much?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: Oh, certainly. Yes, very much.

PAUL CUMMINGS: I know some of the people I’ve talked to have been very insular because of their art interest, and the other children didn’t understand it much.

FAIRFIELD PORTER: No. My art interest wasn’t that decisive or active, and anyway it wouldn’t have isolated me.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, if you lived in a house like this in an area… You didn’t play the same kind of games that apartment dwelling children play.


PAUL CUMMINGS: Did you have a lot of friends in school?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: No. I was rather isolated at school except the first school I went to – which was a private school- when I was five and was there for about three years. Then I went to public school, and public school sort of frightened me partly because I was a good deal younger than the other kinds in my own grade. I was two years younger. I wasn’t very athletic but neither were my brothers. We were all like that, but they didn’t have the disadvantage of being a couple of years younger than their group.

PAUL CUMMINGS: It makes a lot of difference.

FAIRFIELD PORTER: Oh, yes, it does. I realize that. It’s very important.

PAUL CUMMINGS: What was the prep school that you went to?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: I went to Milton Academy for a while, but that was just to…. I had already been admitted to Harvard. That was just to hold me back a year. I didn’t finish the year at Milton. I came home to my sister’s wedding and didn’t go back to school.

PAUL CUMMINGS: So you must have gone to Harvard very young then.

FAIRFIELD PORTER: I was 17 in my freshman year.

PAUL CUMMINGS: What did you study there?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: I majored in fine arts but just barely. I got an S.B. degree, which meant that I didn’t take the Latin requirements which they wanted then for an A.B. degree.

PAUL CUMMINGS: What’s an S.B.?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: Bachelor of Science in the fine arts.

PAUL CUMMINGS: How did they figure that?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: It only meant the Latin requirement has not been passes. That’s all it meant. It was an inferior degree to an A.B. In a certain sense.

PAUL CUMMINGS: I see. Well let’s not really get into college yet. Did you do a lot of reading in childhood? Did you have books around?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: I read H.G. Wells science fiction. That’s what I remember. I remember mother used to read a great deal to us, Dickens. What I read to myself was H.G. Wells, The First Man in the Moon and everything that I could get by him.

PAUL CUMMINGS: He’s very exciting. I read a lot of him, too, at one time.

FAIRFIELD PORTER: I think because of H.G. Wells, my brother Edward, older then I, and I and two neighboring girls spent a lot of time making up a country in Mars; and we drew maps of it and discussed its sociology and that sort of stuff. This all came from H.G. Wells.

PAUL CUMMINGS: So you really built a whole world. That’s great. Were you interested in music?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: No. I’m not particularly musical. The family isn’t either. There was a player organ in the house which father played. There were certain things that I got very familiar with and liked very much. I like music when it’s easy for me to pay attention.

PAUL CUMMINGS: You didn’t have any languages at home, did you?

FAIRFIELD PORTER: German. We had a German governess. I knew German very well. The last time I went to Germany which is a long time ago, I found that German came back to me very, very fast. I was mostly in Italy; that was 1932. I went to Germany and I came back to Italy. I had picked up Italian, so I could play bridge with the people in the pension. There was an Austrian woman in the pension; and she said: You speak German better than Italian.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Were languages easy for you?

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