Hartford native Charles Ethan Porter (1847?-1923) was a rarity in the nineteenth century: an African American artist whose still lifes garnered praise from luminaries like Mark Twain. But the shifting climate of Reconstruction saw an increase in racism and exclusion, and Porter’s fortunes fell as the century ended. Not surprisingly, there is little available biographical information on the artist. His last years were spent in dire poverty, living a struggling life in Rockville. He died in obscurity. Also not surprisingly, there are only two extant photographs, both taken of Porter as an old man, both owned by the Rockville Historical Society. Recent years have seen a spirited revival of interest in his work, especially after the New Britain Museum of American Art mounted an important exhibit of his work in 2007, accompanied by Hildegard Cummings’ seminal and revelatory catalogue Charles Ethan Porter: African American Master of the Still Life.
But perhaps there exists a third photograph—a miniature daguerreotype representing Porter as a young man at the height of his fame. Last year a Southern auction house catalogue listed a daguerreotype of an “African-American artist," a young man captured with a palette and paintbrush in hand. Intrigued, I obtained the item. As a collector of Porter’s art, I was hoping I’d unearthed a coveted third photograph. This faded photograph, barely three inches in size, reveals a lanky, light-skinned man with a long bony face, even sporting a jaunty Bohemian hat on his head. A friend stands with him. But, importantly, he holds the tools of his craft.
In the available accounts of his life he was variously described as “light-skinned” and “slight of build” (Connecticut Gallery, 1987 catalogue), and Cummings notes his parents were “light-skinned,” occasionally labeled by census takers as “white,” though “colored” and “colored artist” were the usual designations. He had a family lineage that included African Americans, whites, and Native Americans. Another intriguing fact: Being an artist was important for Porter who in a 1920 census categorized himself as “Artist.” It stands to reason that he would pose for a rare photograph with the symbols of his passion.
An enlargement of the photograph bears comparison with the Porter of his late years: tall, light-skinned, a slender, bony face with a long jaw. Although of course I lack concrete forensic examination, I’m suggesting that this old daguerreotype might show a young Porter. Sadly there is no
documentation on the photograph, not even the name of a daguerreian studio. (Augustus Washington, another African American, ran a successful daguerreian studio in Hartford, but closed it in 1853 when he emigrated to Liberia.) Porter never received the recognition that other African Americans artists (like Henry Ossawa Tanner and Edward M. Bannister) achieved during their lifetimes, artists whose biographies were documented. Thus it is unlikely this new photograph captures either of these two men. But it does suggest the Connecticut artist. I’d like to believe that here, wonderfully and surprisingly, is a snapshot of a pioneering artist captured during his robust, productive years. The portrait of the artist as a young man—maybe.