James A. Porter: The Father of African American Art History

Professor James A. Porter
Professor James A. Porter

James Amos Porter was born on December 22, 1905 in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated cum laude from Howard University in 1927, with a Bachelors of Science degree in art. After graduation he became an instructor of drawing and painting at Howard. He continued growing as an artist and began attending the Art Students League of New York, under the tutelage of Dimitri Romanovsky. In addition, he studied in Paris at the Institute of Art and Archeology at the Sorbonne, receiving a Certificat de Présence in 1935. After completing his MA at New York University in 1937, he published “Modern Negro Art” (1943), an early comprehensive study of African American art. In 1953 he became head of Howard’s art department, working alongside fellow artists Lois Mailou Jones and James Lesesne Wells. Under his leadership Howard produced scholars such as David C. Driskell, Sylvia Snowden and Tritobia Hayes Benjamin. In an era where the contributions of African American artists were denied, Porter was diligent in defining the image of black artists worldwide. His exploration of black art contextualized the history as a part of American culture, while also linking it to the African diaspora. This stream of thought established the curriculum for African American art and provided a foundation for the study of black artists.

            The son of Lydia and John Porter, James was the youngest of eight children. His father, a prominent reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal church, expected his son to become a minister after high school. James on the other hand planned on becoming an artist. After an introduction to painting from his older brother, John Jr. he developed a love for art. His father begrudgingly introduced him to James V. Herring, the head of Howard University’s art department, in the hope that Herring could dissuade the young artist. Herring not only recognized Porter’s talent, but also encouraged him to continue making art, urging him to attend Howard after graduation. Porter graduated at the top of his class and was offered a scholarship to Yale University. Unable to cover the cost of living expenses, Porter accepted a scholarship to Howard University, arranged by Herring. After his completion at Howard, Porter was immediately offered a position to instruct. In preparation, he spent the summer studying art education at Columbia University in New York. During his studies he became aware of the lack of information available regarding black artists. After reading a brief article about African-American landscape artist Robert S. Duncanson, Porter’s curiosity of the subject expanded. He visited the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, where he met research librarian Dorothy Burnett. She specialized in Negro writings before 1835 and would prove to be essential in Porter’s life. The pair fell in love and in 1929 married. They produced one child, Constance. Dorothy worked closely alongside James providing bibliographies and aiding him in his research. She would later become director of The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University.

"Woman Holding a Jug" Oil on canvas (1932)
“Woman Holding a Jug” Oil on canvas (1930)

Throughout his lifetime, Porter remained a working artist, frequently exhibiting and submitting artwork for review. He gained recognition as an artist, for his skill in creating dramatic portraits. In 1933, he received the Schomburg Portrait Prize, from the Harmon Foundation, for the painting entitled “Woman Holding a Jug” (1930). Porter drew inspiration from his personal experiences. Much of his early work consisted of family, friends and prominent figures from Howard. He continued his studies abroad, traveling to Paris in 1935. A fellowship from the Institute of International Education allowed Porter to study medieval archaeology at the Sorbonne in Paris. After completion he continued to study European and African art throughout Europe, with grants from the College Art Association and the Rockefeller Foundation. Porter afterwards graduated from NYU and resumed teaching at Howard University. His thesis served as the foundation for “Modern Negro Art”. This original work served as the primary source for African American art history and sparked renewed interest in forgotten masters of the past. In the book, he also discussed contemporary artists such as: Archibald Motley and Jacob Lawrence, among others.

During much of the 1940s Porter extensively researched art from the diaspora and contributed to numerous publications. He was published in the magazine Art Front, where he disagreed with intellectuals W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke over the role of abstraction in modern African-American art and the identity of blacks living in America. Porter praised artists who used traditional methods of figural representation over those who used abstract figures. He believed that Locke advanced the “defeatist philosophy of the Segregationist” and that we must mutually affirm our African heritage and define ourselves as apart of American history and culture. In 1945-46, Porter traveled to Cuba and Haiti with further assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation. In his study of Latin-American art, he discovered a relation to African art and architecture. The Cuban government however dismissed the connection. The materials he collected lead to the development of Latin-American art and African Art and Architecture curriculums at Howard. In 1951, a major article on Robert S. Ducanson was published in the journal Art In America. Porter’s research unearthed missing details about the life and work of the obscure artist.

"On a Cuban Bus" Oil on canvas (1946)
“On a Cuban Bus” Oil on canvas (1946)

In 1953, Herring retired from Howard University, Porter would assume the role of his mentor as head of the art department and director of the art gallery. Taking full advantage of his new position, he exhibited Latin-American artists for the first time at Howard. Porter continuously developed his style as an artist and next ventured to West Africa and Egypt, his wife alongside him. He met with numerous artists, consumed the collections in the museums and documented over 800 works of art and architecture. He became inspired by Africa and sought to “capture the rhythmic accents of African life, the changeful moods of color and atmosphere…” He held an exhibition of these works at Howard in 1965.Also that year, The National Gallery of Art selected Porter as one of the best art teachers in the nation. Together with 24 other honorees, he was presented the award by Lady Bird Johnson. The award ceremony served as part of the National Gallery’s 25th anniversary celebration. The following year, Porter organized an exhibition as part of Howard’s centennial celebration, entitled “Ten Afro-American Artists of the Nineteenth Century ,” the showcase included works by Edmonia Lewis, Edward M. Bannister, Henry Ossawa Tanner and Robert S. Duncanson. Porter again shed light on African American artists whose excellence had been ignored by a mainstream audience. At the end of this period, Porter was diagnosed with cancer and became seriously ill. Pushing forward he traveled to Africa, as chairman of a conference on Zimbabwean culture, in Rhodesia. After returning to the United States, he chaired a conference on African American artists, one week before his death, on February 28, 1970. His second book “The Black Artist” was never completed.

For more than 40 years, Professor James A. Porter devoted his life to Howard University, heading its Art Department and the Art Gallery. He tirelessly worked to educate students and the world about the accomplishments of African American artists and the issues they faced. In 1992, the Howard University Gallery of Art presented an exhibition of Porter’s work. The retrospective was entitled, “James A. Porter, Artist and Art Historian: The Memory of the Legacy.” It expressed the balance shown in all his roles as an artist, historian, curator and educator. There is also an academic colloquium in honor of Porter at Howard University. The annual event draws leaders and emerging scholars in the field of African American art. On February 25, 2010 Swann Galleries auctioned Porter’s massive archive of research material. The lot included “photographs, letters, exhibit catalogues, art books, flyers, and bibliographical data on important African-American artists,” and also “correspondence from virtually every major African-American artist from the 1920s forward.” Porter’s work has not only left a lasting impression on American culture, but remains legendary in the scholarship of African American art. He provided the framework for a critical analysis of African American art, and explained the complex relationship between black artists and the United States. His greatest accomplishment however, may be his skill as a thoughtful instructor, who inspired his students to pursue excellence.

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