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Porter, Fairfield (1907-1975)  
 
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Bisexual artist, art critic, and poet Fairfield Porter is recognized as a major twentieth-century American Intimist painter, whose body of work features lyrical depictions of everyday life and portraits of family members and friends, in the manner of the late-nineteenth-century French artists Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, whose paintings Porter greatly admired.

Porter worked for years before his paintings were ever publicly shown, and it was not until the last decade of his life that he began to receive the recognition that many critics and peers felt he deserved. His reputation as an important artist and art critic continues to grow.

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In fact, Porter's light-filled landscapes, domestic interiors, and perceptive portraits, which clashed so sharply with the trend toward abstraction that dominated American art in the second half of the twentieth century, are now recognized, as David Lehman noted in American Heritage, as "perhaps the best American representational art in existence."

Porter struggled throughout his lifetime with his sexual identity. As a young man he found himself attracted to other men and, beginning in his forties, shared a close friendship, and briefly a sexual relationship, with the poet James Schuyler.

Nonetheless, he and his wife, the poet Anne Channing Porter, enjoyed an enduring, devoted marriage that lasted over forty years and produced five children. As Catherine Noonan observed, writing in American Artist, "family was intrinsic to Porter's upbringing and adulthood."

Biography and Education

The fourth of five children, Fairfield Porter was born on June 10, 1907, in the village of Winnetka, Illinois (then known as Hubbard Woods), into an affluent family. His father was an amateur architect and natural history enthusiast who had inherited a Chicago-based real estate fortune. His mother was a schoolteacher, published poet, and lifelong social activist. Both sides of the family had deep roots in New England.

Like his father and brothers before him, Porter attended Harvard University, where he studied philosophy and art history.

In 1927, his junior year at Harvard, Porter had his first encounter, at a friend's house, with Anne Elizabeth Channing, a bright sixteen-year-old girl from a prominent Boston family, whom he was to marry five years later.

After graduating Harvard in 1928, Porter moved to Greenwich Village, then widely considered the center of New York's artistic, intellectual, and bohemian worlds. He spent three years studying painting at the famed Art Students League, under the direction of Thomas Hart Benton, the American Regionalist painter.

Bisexuality and Marriage

In the spring of 1931, at his mother's behest, Porter made a weekend visit to a Winnetka neighbor then studying at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. It was during this visit that he became reacquainted with Anne Channing, who was also attending the college.

Anne's attraction to Porter was immediate. According to Porter's biographer, "Anne had long known that she was a poet, and in Fairfield she had found a kindred spirit: an intelligent young man from a similar background who was following an artistic vocation rather than a more conventional way of life."

Porter himself was somewhat more diffident. That fall, he embarked on a months-long trip to Italy to continue his art studies. He and Anne, however, corresponded regularly throughout his stay.

While in Florence, Porter met Arthur Giardelli, a handsome young Oxford student studying Italian. The two men became close friends and spent as much time together as they could, visiting churches and museums, and discussing poetry and art.

Based on his strong affections for the young man, Porter realized he was bisexual, even though, according to Giardelli, "there was no physical relationship" between the two men, "only a deep emotional attraction."

Twenty-six years later, in 1957, Porter wrote to Giardelli: "I hadn't such a friend as you at home; but suddenly I had one in Florence, the unattainable became simple. For that I am always grateful. These things count, I hope you know, and I hope what I say will not seem strange to you. I loved you, and I think you loved me."

Giardelli, who had long since married and fathered two children, responded: "Indeed, I have often thought of you, but I never analyzed our relationship and was quite surprised to read your analysis of it, which was no doubt correct. I suppose that was how things were--although I don't know: words seem to pin down an experience & yet the truth of the matter flutters off."

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