The multi-talented Porter was an artist, scholar, educator, and mentor. He is recognized as the first African American art historian; his 1943 publication Modern Negro Art, is the earliest comprehensive treatment of the contributions of artists of African descent to American art and culture.
Gwen Everett African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C. and New York: Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003)
“You can’t help painting when you’re in Africa — the skies, the red earth, the verdure and the dress of the people — all of them reinforce one’s feeling for color.” — “Painter’s Reaction: Africa — A Vivid Continent,” The Evening Star, 22 Jan. 1965.
James A. Porter, born in Baltimore in 1905, was the first African-American art historian. His 1943 book, Modern Negro Art, was the earliest comprehensive treatment of African-American art and remains a classic in its field. He attended public schools in the District of Columbia and later graduated from Howard University in 1927. He became an art instructor at the university and chairman of its art department, a position he retained until his death. Porter attended graduate school at Columbia University and the Art Students League in New York where he studied with the painter Dimitri Romanowsky. During the summer of 1935 Porter used a fellowship from the Institute of International Education to study medieval archaeology at the Institut d’Art etd’Archéologie at the Sorbonne in Paris. After completing his studies in Paris, Porter received a stipend from the Rockefeller Foundation for extensive travel in Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Italy. Porter stated that the purpose of his trip was “To make a first-hand study of certain collections of African Negro arts and crafts housed in important museums of ethnography.…”
On a leave of absence from Howard University, during the school year 1945 and 1946, Porter again received financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation to visit cultural facilities in Cuba and Haiti. In 1955 he was appointed a fellow of the Belgium-American Art Seminar, and pursued further studies in the history of Flemish and Dutch art of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries while in Belgium. Porter’s final educational trip abroad — to West Africa in 1963 — was sponsored by a grant from the Evening Star, a Washington, D.C., newspaper. There he conducted research for a book on West African architecture, and completed a series of twenty-five paintings dealing with West African themes. These paintings were exhibited in the Gallery of Art at Howard University following his return.
Primarily an educator and writer, Porter was also an artist and completed a number of important drawings and paintings. Charcoal drawings from an early sketchbook reveal that he was a sensitive draftsman. It was in the areas of portrait painting, figure studies, and still lifes, however, that he excelled; his most successful works were oil portraits of family and friends. He also completed a group of paintings depicting scenes and local residents during his trips to Haiti and Cuba.
In 1966 Porter was honored by President Lyndon B. Johnson on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the National Gallery of Art as one of America’s most outstanding men of the arts.” James Porter, remembered for his significant role in establishing the art department and gallery at Howard University, his pioneering research, and writings in the field of African-American art history, served most importantly as a teacher and mentor to generations of students.
Porter’s works were shown frequently in group exhibitions throughout his career. In 1940 he was represented in the American Negro Exposition in Chicago, and in 1948 the Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington, D.C., mounted a one-man exhibition of his works.
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)