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Porter, James A[mos]

Date born: 1905

Place Born: Baltimore, Maryland

Date died: 1970

Place died: Washington, D.C.

Early specialist art historian of African-American art; artist. Porter was the son of John Porter and Lydia Peck (Porter).  His father was a Christian minister and his mother a schoolteacher. Porter went to the public schools in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, DC, before graduating cum laude from Howard University in 1927. He was immediately hired as an instructor of drawing and painting in the art department. He received recognition from the Harmon Foundation for his portraits, exhibiting his work at both Howard and Hampton Universities.  In 1929 he married Dorothy Louise Burnett and began attending the Art Students League of New York then under Dimitri Romanovsky and George Bridgeman. Porter's written work in art history began appearing in 1931 with the article, "Versatile Interests of the Early Negro Artist," in Art in America. In 1935, he traveled to Paris to study medieval archaeology at the Institute d'Art et Archéologie, Sorbonne through a fellowship from the Scholarship Institute of International Education, and grants from the College Art Association and the Rockefeller Foundation. He was awarded a certificat de présence from the Institut d'Art et Archeologie (Sorbonne) in 1935.   After completing his MA at New York University, Fine Arts Graduate Center, Porter began writing his book Modern Negro Art, which was published in 1943. The book described the history of African-American art from its beginnings to the mid-twentieth century, and included discussions of contemporary artists such as Archibald Motley and Jacob Lawrence. Porter disagreed with scholars and critics W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke over the role of abstraction in modern African-American art, praising artists who used traditional methods of figural representation over those who used abstract figures. In 1953, he was appointed head of Howard University's Art Department, as well as its Art Gallery. As director, his profile at Howard was instrumental in adding the university to among those receiving renaissance and baroque art from the Kress collection at its dispersement in 1961.  Porter received research grants from the Belgian Ministry of Education in 1955 to study Belgian art (the Belgium-American Art Seminar), and studied Mexican fresco murals at the Instituto Allende in Guanauato, Mexico. He was a  UNESCO delegate at the [Boston] Conference on Africa in 1961.  He was a member of the Arts Council of Washington, D.C. between 1961 and 1963. The Washington Evening Star awarded him a Faculty Research grant in 1963, allowing him to spend a year on sabbatical studying art in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Togo and Senegal. In March 1965 Porter was named one of "America's most outstanding men of the arts" by President Lyndon Johnson's wife, Lady Bird Johnson, at the National Gallery of Art, in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the National Gallery. The James A. Porter Gallery of African-American Art at Howard University Gallery was dedicated in his honor in 1970 and in 1990 the Department of Art at Howard created the annual James A. Porter Inaugural Colloquium on African-American Art.

Porter was the first scholar to provide a systematic, critical analysis of African American artists and their works. "Four Problems in the History of Negro Art," published in 1942 in the Journal of Negro History outlined the difficulties in documenting African American art.  These included the unrecorded work of handicrafts and fine arts by African-Americans before 1820, the black artist's relation to the white American society, the decline in production among black artists between 1870 and 1890, and the role of the African American artist in the so-called "New Negro Movement" of 1900-1920.  His papers are housed in the Dorothy Porter Wesley Archives, Wesport Foundation and Gallery, Washington, DC.  LMW

Home Country: United States

Sources: "James A. Porter Chronology, compiled by Constance Porter Uzelac." Modern Negro Art. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1992; Uzelac, Constance Porter. "Porter, James." American National Biography James A. Porter Inaugural Colloquium on African-American Art [conference announcement]. Howard University, 1990; James A. Porter, Artist and Art Historian: The Memory of the Legacy. Washington, DC: Howard University Gallery of Art,1992; Donald F. Davis, "James Porter of Howard: Artist, Writer." Journal of Negro History 70 (1985): 89-91;[obituary:] Art Journal 29 (1970): 295-296.

Bibliography: Modern Negro Art, New York: Dryden Press, 1943; Laura Wheeler Waring; An Appreciational Study. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Gallery of Art, 1949; "Negro Art on Review." American Magazine of Art 27 January 1934; Introduction. "The Art of Charles White: An Appreciation." Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White. Forward by Harry Belafonte. Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1967; "Four Problems in the History of Negro Art," Journal of Negro History 27, no. 1 (January 1942): 9-36; "Versatile Interests of the Early Negro Artist: A Neglected Chapter of American Art History," Art in America and Elsewhere 24, no. 1 (January 1936): 16-27.

Subject's name: James A. Porter