Sunday, 31 May 2015


 BLACK      SOCIAL   HISTORY                                                                                                                                                                                                     James A. Porter

James A. Porter, African Nude, 1934. Harmon Foundation Collection
James Amos Porter (December 22, 1905 – February 28, 1970 age: 65) was a pioneer in establishing the field of African-American art history. He was instrumental as the first scholar to provide a systematic, critical analysis of African-American artists and their works of art. An artist himself, he provided a unique and critical approach to the analysis of the work. Dedicated to educating and writing about African-American artists, Porter set the foundation for artists and art historians to probe and unearth the necessary skills essential to their artistic and scholarly endeavors. Porter’s determination to document and view African-American art in the context of American art created the canon.


Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Porter had a long career in the visual arts as an artist and historian. Under the direction of James V. Herring, head of the Art Department atHoward University, Porter studied painting, drawing, and art history. Porter was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha.
Upon graduating with a bachelor of science in 1927, he accepted a position as instructor of painting and drawing at Howard. Throughout his academic professional career, Porter also painted, and continued to exhibit nationally and internationally.
After completing undergraduate work, Porter attended the Art Institute in New York City. He also studied in Paris at the Institute of Art and Archeology at the Sorbonne, where he received a Certificat de PrĂ©sence in 1935. When Porter returned to the United States, he pursued an M.A. in art history at New York University, completing it in 1937. Porter’s thesis, later the foundation for his book, Modern Negro Art, focused on African-American artists and artisans.

Marriage and family

During his studies, Porter met Dorothy Burnett, a librarian at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, where he did research. On December 27, 1929, Porter and Burnett were married. They had one daughter, Constance Porter. They became professional as well as personal partners. Dorothy worked with Porter, providing bibliographic information critical to his investigations. Both worked at Howard University. Dorothy Porter was the director of Moorland Foundation, later known as theMoorland-Spingarn Research Center. She developed and catalogued information about African-American artists.

African-American art history

Porter’s interest in nearly forgotten and often ignored artists[1] of African descent was sparked by reading a brief article on African-American landscape artist Robert Scott Duncanson. Due to the account's brevity, Porter followed his curiosity to research Duncanson and other artists of African descent.
He published Modern Negro Art in 1943, the first comprehensive study in the United States of African-American art. Porter decisively placed African-American artists within the framework of American art. He was the first to recognize and document the significant contributions these artists made to the history of American art. With Porter’s systematic approach, Modern Negro Art became and still is the foundation of African-American art history and for later texts.[citation needed]
Porter included art of Cuba, Haiti, and Africa in his investigations of artists of the African diaspora. He visited Haiti and Cuba on a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1945/46. The Cuban government spurned his painting, The Cuban Bus. His thorough research on these countries and West Africa stimulated his creating courses at Howard in "Latin American Art" and "African Art and Architecture".

Teaching – colleagues and students

Porter taught at Howard for more than forty years, together with artists such as James Lesesne Wells and Lois Mailou Jones. He headed the Art Department, and served as Director of the Art Gallery from 1953 through 1970.
The list of artists who studied under Porter is a long one. It includes Tritoba Hayes Benjamin, David C. DriskellSylvia SnowdenMildred Thompson (1936–2003) and many others. Mildred Thompson wrote of Porter that he
"...was a kind and gentle teacher. His method was personal and individual. He taught me step by step as if guiding me through an initiation. He watched over the development of my crafts while at the same time helping me to develop the character that would enable me to practice the craft for a lifetime." [2]

Honors and legacy

  • In 1933 he received the Schomburg Portrait Prize, from the Harmon Foundation, for the painting entitled Woman Holding a Jug (1930).
  • In 1965 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 byLady Bird Johnson.
  • In 1990 Howard University founded an academic colloquium named in Porter's honor and has since held it annually. The Colloquium annually draws leading and emerging scholars in the field of study he helped establish. Presenters have included Porter students such as David C. Driskell and Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, along with other important scholars and artists, such as Lowery Stokes Sims, Richard A. Long, Richard Powell[disambiguation needed], Michael Harris, Judith WilsonSamella Lewis, and Deborah Willis.
Porter, "father of African American art history", left a strong cultural and educational legacy. Scholars in the field continue to explore and document artists of the Diaspora. Porter’s artistic and historical work provided a solid foundation for current and future scholars. Many scholars owe Porter for the inspiration to probe the depths of African-American visual culture and attest to its significance to American culture. --Jeffreen Hayes, Scholar
On February 25, 2010 Swann Galleries auctioned an immense archive of research material amassed by Porter; it consisted of photographs, letters, exhibit catalogues, art books, flyers, and bibliographical data on important African-American artists. The papers included correspondence from virtually every major African-American artist from the 1920s forward: Romare BeardenLois Mailou JonesMeta FullerElizabeth CatlettHughie Lee-Smith, and many others.