dclibrary.org home black renaissance home
The Black Renaissance in Washington, DC, 1910-1937
biographies harlem renaissance books links timeline about this site

James A. Porter
December 22, 1905-February 28, 1970

James A. Porter is called the Father of African-American art history. He was the author of Core CollectionModern Negro Art, the first comprehensive history of African-American art. In addition, he was an influential teacher at Howard University for over forty years and an acclaimed artist.

Porter was born December 22, 1905 to Lydia and John Porter in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was an African Methodist Episcopal minister and his mother was a teacher. James A. Porter was the youngest of a large family. His older brother John introduced him to painting. He attended schools in Washington, D.C. between 1918 until 1923 and graduated from Armstrong Manual Training School. His motto upon graduation was "not merely to exist but to amount to something."

James V. Herring, the head of the Art Department of Howard University, became his mentor. Porter entered Howard University in 1923 and immediately upon graduation was offered and accepted the position as instructor of painting and drawing there. He later continued his artistic education at New York University, the Art Student League in New York City, and the Institut d’Art et d’Archeologie, at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied Baroque art. In 1937, he earned his masters in the history of art from New York University.

He also participated in a number of juried exhibitions and in 1933, won the Schomburg portrait prize in the Harmon exhibition with Woman Holding a Jug. He was especially known for his elegant portraiture of notable African-Americans. Among the museums that would later exhibit his works were the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. His work would also be included in such exhibitions as The Negro Artist Comes of Age, The Negro in American Art, and Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950.

One day after reading a brief account of a forgotten African-American artist Robert S. Duncanson of the Civil War period, he decided to search for more information about neglected African-American artists. At the Harlem branch library, he met his future wife librarian Dorothy Burnett. They were married on December 27, 1929 and had one daughter, Constance. Dorothy later became the director of the Moorland Spingarn Research Center at Howard University and they would continue to work together researching African-American artists throughout their careers. Porter’s research on African-American artists and artisans became the basis of his master’s thesis. His research also appeared in the journal Art in America and was the first systematic account of African-American artists in a leading art magazine.

Porter found himself in disagreement with famous African-American philosopher Alain Locke and in 1937 published an attack on Locke in Art Front. Basically, the debate centered on whether African-American artists needed to look toward the heritage of African art as Alain Locke recommended or whether they should consider themselves Americans first. Porter also disliked the criticism of such African-American artists Henry Ossawa Tanner and Robert S. Duncanson. Porter felt that Locke advanced the "defeatist philosophy of the Segregationist." Their debate continues today.

In 1943, his landmark book Core CollectionModern Negro Art was published. This book would be the first comprehensive history of African-American art and is still considered a classic. It places African-American art in the context of American art history. In October 1951, he rescued artist Robert S. Duncanson from obscurity with an article published in Art in America.

After World War II, Porter obtained Rockefeller Foundation grants that enabled him to visit artists in Cuba and Haiti. His research would become the basis of a course in Latin American art at Howard University. His most famous painting of this period was The Cuban Bus.

When Herring retired as director of Howard University’s art department in 1953, Porter became the head of the department and of the Art Gallery. At the Gallery, he exhibited the works of African-American, Cuban, and Haitian artists.

From 1963 to 1964, Porter and his wife toured West Africa and Egypt. He visited all the museums, interviewed artists and photographed over 800 works of art and architecture. His research would form the basis of his course African Art and Architecture at Howard. The trip also inspired his paintings. His work became more expressionistic with African themes. He sought to "capture the rhythmic accents of African life, the changeful moods of color and atmosphere…" These works were exhibited at Howard in 1965.

In 1965, the National Gallery of Art selected him as one of the nation’s 25 best art teachers. Lady Bird Johnson presented the award. The following year, Porter organized Ten Afro-American Artists of the Nineteenth Century, a show which included works by Edmonia Lewis, Robert S. Duncanson, and Edward M. Bannister.

Porter continued working until he died. His book The Black Artist was never completed. One week before his death, he chaired a conference on African-American artists. He died on February 28, 1970. Although a gifted artist and influential teacher, he is most remembered for his pioneering research into the history of African-American art.


ART VF Art, American—DC—Porter, James A.

Core CollectionBearden, Romare and Harry Henderson. A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.

James A. Porter: Artist and Art Historian: The Memory of the Legacy. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Gallery of Art, 1993.

Core CollectionPorter, James A. Modern Negro Art. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1992.

Beth Anne Meyer
Librarian, Art Division

Titles marked Core Collection are included in the Core Collection of Harlem Renaissance Books at the Libraries.

biographies | harlem renaissance books | links | timeline
black renaissance home | dclibrary.org home

The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003