If there were a family tree of Washington, DC artists, James A. Porter would be one of its deepest roots. Born in Baltimore in 1905, he moved to southeast Washington, DC around the age of 13.
He entered DC public schools, where art was integral to all subjects at every grade level due to an innovative curriculum designed, and constantly refined, by Thomas W. Hunster (1851-1929). Professor Hunster, as he was called, became known as the "Father of Art" over his forty-eight year tenure as Director of Drawing for the city's African American public schools.
Porter, who graduated from Armstrong Technical High School as salutatorian in 1923, became known as the "Father of African American art history" during his forty-three year career at Howard University. His book, Modern Negro Art, which includes Professor Hunster, surveyed this new field in 1943, with subsequent editions published in 1969, 1992, and 2020.1
Porter was offered scholarships to Yale and Howard universities. Yale, however, was still unaffordable for the seventh child of Rev. John Porter and Lydia Peck, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor and a teacher, respectively.
Upon graduating cum laude from Howard in 1927, Porter joined the Department of Art and Architecture as a faculty member. His own education did not stop, though. He took summer classes at the Art Students League in New York City with painter Dimitri Romanovsky and George Bridgeman, an expert in figure drawing.
Best known for portraiture and drafting, Porter also embraced abstraction. His continuous study of art and architecture was similarly wholistic. He studied in Europe, Africa, and the Americas to grow as an artist and to learn more about African influences on art in the Black diaspora.
He delved into medieval archaeology at the Sorbonne. He later traveled to Belgium for a fellowship in seventeenth-century Flemish art. In 1937, he earned an MA in art history from New York University.
A sabbatical and funding from Washington, DC's Evening Star newspaper allowed him to accompany his spouse, Dorothy Burnett Porter, to Lagos, Nigeria in 1963-1964. While scholar-librarian Dorothy was developing the National Library of Nigeria's collection, scholar-artist James was "collecting various pieces of African art in West Africa and Egypt" and completing twenty-five paintings."2
Porter's intertwined academic research and artistic exploration also took him to Mexico for lessons in fresco technique, as well as to Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Republic of Congo (in 1963-1964, Southern Rhodesia), Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Sudan.
Drawing from research and experience, he created courses in African and Latin American art, respectively, and published articles, books, and illustrations in a variety of outlets.
Washington, DC also inspired Porter, whose artwork adorned the city, from stained glass windows in Howard's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel to murals on walls now razed, such as in the Junior Police Citizens Corps building.
Men at a Table, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, James Amos Porter, 1961. Paper, ink. Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
Tribute to YMCA, James Amos Porter, c. 1934. Oil on canvas. Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
Porter depicted DC in numerous artworks in the museum's collection, including a print of his painting, Executive Avenue at Lafayette Square, and a drawing for family Christmas cards. In addition, his painting “Tribute to the YMCA” celebrates the community service of DC’s first YMCA for African Americans. Located just south of the fabled U Street Corridor, the Twelfth Street Branch counted poet Langston Hughes, physician Charles Drew, and attorney (and future Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall among its notable visitors.
Porter presented the painting to the Y in 1934. At the dedication ceremony, artist-educator William N. Buckner, Jr., gave a lecture on The Negro in Art. Buckner likely met Porter at Howard, where both studied and taught. They also served as jurors for art shows in DC along with Howard alum Alma Thomas and Howard art professor James Lesesne Wells. (Professor Hunster had been Buckner’s mentor at the M Street School [renamed Dunbar in 1916], and Buckner taught, and later became principal, at Armstrong, Porter's alma mater.) Each of these artist/educators are represented in the Anacostia Community Museum's collection.
The museum's collection also includes Porter's sketch and painting of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial. Her 1939 performance was part of a multi-year concert series at Howard, famously relocated from Constitution Hall due to the DAR's segregationist policies barring Black performers.
Like Anderson, Porter was also an accomplished singer. He studied with a Howard colleague, baritone Todd Duncan, and, similarly, instructed colleagues in painting and drawing. (Rev. Howard Thurman notes art lessons with Porter during his tenure as Dean of Rankin Chapel in With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman.)
Crowd Watching Marian Anderson, James Amos Porter, mid-20th century. Graphite, watercolor, ink, gouache on paper. Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
My father felt it was important for people to appreciate art. He organized a rental program at the university and wrote articles on art as decoration in the home. He and my mother attended every opening at the Barnett-Aden Gallery, all the museums, and every Washington, DC gallery—invited or not! He felt it necessary to have a presence at all art functions in the city. His interest and achievements in European art opened the door for him at the French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Austrian and Swiss embassies. The African embassies followed suit along with Iran and India. His many trips to Europe helped him to be fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, German and facilitated his reading Dutch.
|James A. Porter and Alma Thomas at the opening of Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective Exhibition at the Howard University Gallery of Art in 1966. Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.|
Howard University Centennial Seal, James A. Porter, 1967. Colored pencil, ink, and graphite on paper. Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
It is hard to overstate the influence of both Porter and Howard University in Washington DC’s artistic community and well beyond. Porter and his colleagues not only taught art but mentored multitudes.
Among their students were DC artists connected with the Anacostia Community Museum, such as David Driskell and Lou Stovall. Regard for Professor Porter's mentorship abounds, from his portrait on permanent display in the Stovall Workshop to his beneficent presence in John N. Robinson's autobiographical sketch for his Corcoran Gallery of Art retrospective. Robinson recounts studying art with Porter due to a scholarship made possible by James V. Herring, Porter's own mentor, whom he succeeded as department chair and director of the Howard University Gallery of Art in 1953.
In 1965, Porter was honored at the White House as one of twenty-five teachers named "America's most outstanding men of the arts." First Lady "Lady Bird" Johnson presented him with a National Gallery of Art Medal for Distinguished Service to Education in Art and an honorarium.
Porter describes "Howard's pioneering role in expanding opportunities" for the Black diaspora in the visual arts collectively:
Within a year after his death in 1970, the James A. Porter Gallery was dedicated at Howard University's Gallery of Art. His ongoing legacies also include the James A. Porter Annual Colloquium on African Art and Art of the African Diaspora, which has convened artists and scholars to share art and conversation since 1990.
Exhibition brochure cover, Anacostia Museum Collects: The Art of James A. Porter, 2003. Designed by Tiana Harris. Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
1. Porter's student David Driskell, who became an art historian in his own right and wrote the introduction to the 1992 edition, notes that Modern Negro Art grew out of Porter's 1939 thesis at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York. Driskell had almost memorized the book as a Howard undergraduate, he goes on to say in an oral history (Oral history interview with David Driskell, 2009 March 18-April 7. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).
2. Ibid, p. 19.
3. Ibid, p. 16.
4. Ibid. p. 19.
Art in Embassies | James A. Porter, US Department of State
Works | James A. Porter, Howard University Gallery of Art, eMuseum
Anacostia Museum Collects: The Art of James A. Porter, Anacostia Community Museum, September 29, 2003 – April 25, 2004.
In Search of Balance: The ArtistScholar, Center for African-American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, November 13, 1997 - March 11, 1998.
James A. Porter: Artist and Art Historian: The Memory of the Legacy. Washington, DC: Howard University Gallery of Art, 1992. Published in conjunction with exhibition by the same name, October 15, 1992 - January 8, 1993.
James A. Porter: Spotlight on His Works on Paper: A Travelling Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Wesport Foundation and Gallery, 1998.
Porter, James Amos. Modern Negro Art. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1992.