Preppy Perspective

Fairfield Porter: Realist in An Age of Abstraction At the Museum of Fine Arts, West wing.

FAIRFIELD PORTER '28 lived and painted the breezy, cheerful life of American upper middle-class success. While his Bohemian colleagues debated aesthetics and dribbled random patterns of canvas. Porter patiently ignored abstract expressionism, rejected as incomprehensible the artistic movements of the fifties and set about depicting "things as they were." Whit an optimistic and impressionistic flair all his own, he faithfully recorded the comfortable little world of pleasant surroundings and relaxed people he knew and loved so well. As the title of the first major exhibition of his work, now at the Museum of Fine Arts, puts it, Fairfield Porter was a "realist painter in an age of abstraction." And now, a full seven years after his death, he is finally getting the recognition he deserved, but never received, in his own day.

Porter was born to wealthy parents in 1907 and spent his childhood in the suburbs of Chicago before attending the Milton Academy. He gradated from Harvard in 1928 with a degree in fine arts and immediately tuned to the intellectual community of New York City for inspiration, which at first he found studying under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League But a after a few years of searching for a novel direction, moving through New York's most sophisticated artistic circles in the process. Porter developed a nostalgic admiration for the straight forward beauties of Impressionism. As Ken worth Moffett, an MFA curator, notes, to Porter "Impressionism was the painterly way of recreating the presence of reality."

The big city, with its dirty streets and sleazy neighborhoods, did not lend itself to Porter's artistic conception of reality, as recalled in his few drab ad tentative attempts at scenes of life in Union Square made in the early forties. So Porter packed up his easel and relocated to the posh seashore resort town of Southampton, Long Island, spending the summers at a vacation home in Great Spruce Head. Maine, In these WASPy environs, he felt at home with everything from the foliage to the patio furniture.

AND EVERYWHERE HE LOOKED, the artist found light and color flooding into his surroundings--the only hard part was getting the luminescence on canvas. To that end, Porter used a nearly fluorescent palette of pastel-lime pinks, greens and blues, as well as a special wax-based matte surface in order to capture the illumination he desired. He then explored every facet of interior design and its relationship to the outdoors, his painting always done with an impeccable air of cleanliness and calm spaciousness evident, for example, in the autumn leaves, long shadows and golden afternoon sun of October Interior (1963) or again in a unique look at furniture and the glow of the fireplace in his Interior with a Dress Pattern (1969). And as one steps back away from the paintings, out of the initial imprecision of the oils comes a nearly photographic effect. The scenes look every bit like a page from House and Garden.

Fairfield Porter might well go down in history as the preppy painter par excellence. It is a wealthy and confident artist who stands next to his wood-burning stove in his chinos, blue button-down Oxford and knit tie (his work clothes) in the Self-Portrait of 1968. Then there are picnics on the golf course in Lunch Under the Elm Tree, charming portraits of perfectly attired little girls (his daughters), and a relaxing backyard clay court match in dress whites in The Tennis Game of 1972. Even Bruno, the family golden retriever, makes an appearance or two and the scenes of Maine feature the requisite lobster cages and boathouses of New England. Affluence with just a touch of informality marks a still life painted in 1959 complete with expensive Blue Danube place settings, violets, oranges and Diamond Crystal salt, likewise the amusing portrait of one AKJ (1959) a satisfied, pearled lady casually seated for tea on the Porters' sofa.


Outdoors in the bright sunlight, Porter was at his very best, in the "oasis of verdure"--as Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus would call it--of suburban landscaping, or among the towering evergreens on the Mine coast. Porter is free to enjoy the boats, lawns and inlets of Island Farmhouse (1969) and the beauty of the countryside speaks for itself, basically unaltered by the artist's interpretation. Or the observer can join Porter for some salty see spray on The Mall Boat (1973) in which, like scene form On Golden Pond, the skipper at the helm navigates through the shallow channels and rocky islands near Great Spruce Head.

Porter, in explaining his love for the work of the Spanish painter Velazquez, once said that "it isn't that he copies nature--he doesn't impose himself upon it." Indeed, Fairfield Porter never had to interfere in the affairs of the world; he just sat been and took in the panorama around him, a panorama of, as John Updike '54 put it., "nice people, nice places, pleasantly redolent of affection and sensitivity." The results show that sometimes realism can go just as far an abstraction in imparting a unique philosophical outlook on life.