Written by Duff Peterson
Photographer Eliot Porter (1901-1990) and his brother, painter Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) – two important American artists of the twentieth century – grew up in Winnetka, IL at 1085 Sheridan Road atop the ravines. Eliot Porter first gained nationwide recognition as a nature photographer in the 1960s, due in part to his work with the Sierra Club, while Fairfield Porter achieved his reputation as a major American painter near the end of his life. Today, their work resides in the collections of most of the country’s major art museums.
The Porters’ parents, James F. Porter and Ruth Furness Porter, both came from old New England families. James’s mother, Julia Foster Porter, inherited land that would later become part of the Chicago Loop, and the property would become the basis of the family’s considerable wealth. Julia Foster Porter devoted herself to philanthropy after her husband’s death, founding what would become Children’s Memorial Hospital in 1882.
James Porter earned a master’s degree in biology from Harvard, and later studied architecture at Columbia, but he spent most of his adult life managing his mother’s real estate holdings, which he eventually inherited. In 1897, James Porter bought a large tract of land in Winnetka on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. He built two impressive homes, a Tudor Revival for his mother at 1077 and a Georgian Revival at 1085 Sheridan Road for his own family. There were also a stable and servants’ quarters. James and Ruth Porter raised five children at 1085 Sheridan. Eliot and Fairfield had classic Winnetka childhoods: playing in the surrounding woods, roaming the beach, learning to play tennis on the family court, and eventually attending New Trier High School.
In 1912 James Porter bought the uninhabited, mile-long Great Spruce Head Island in Penobscot Bay off the coast of Maine. He designed and built a 14-bedroom house on the island, and the Porter family spent summers there for the rest of their lives. Passing long periods of time without friends and isolated from the rest of the world, the Porter children developed both an intellectual intensity and a fondness for being alone. Both Eliot and Fairfield would reflect the island’s natural beauty and the family’s simple island life in their art.
Eliot Porter graduated from Harvard with a degree in chemical engineering in 1923 and then attended Harvard Medical School, graduating in 1929, but he gave up his career as a biochemical researcher in 1939 to pursue photography full-time. Unlike most other serious photographers of the era, Eliot Porter worked mostly in color, which he felt captured nature’s beauty the best. Like many artists before him, he was attracted to the dazzling light of northern New Mexico. In 1946 he moved to Tesuque, near Santa Fe, not far from the home of fellow Midwesterner and friend Georgia O’Keeffe. His fascination with nature led to a long association with the Sierra Club, which in 1960 published “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World,” a book of his nature photographs accompanied by quotes from Thoreau. The book was immensely popular, and brought nationwide recognition to Porter as well as considerable revenue to the Sierra Club.
Eliot Porter’s next book for the Sierra Club, The Place No One Knew (1963), was an elegy for Glen Canyon, a wondrous section of the Colorado River that was about to vanish under the waters of Lake Powell with the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam. Porter’s haunting images helped to galvanize public opinion against further destruction of scenic areas of the West, and Congress soon canceled all remaining plans to dam the Colorado. Eliot Porter produced a total of 25 books of nature photography, with subjects as far away as Iceland, the Galápagos Islands, and Antarctica. His work was exhibited at museums and galleries all over the country. He died in Santa Fe in 1990.
Fairfiel Porter followed Eliot to Harvard, graduating in 1928. He was an indifferent student, but it was at Harvard that he decided to become an artist. In the summer of 1927, he embarked on a walking tour of France with another brother, Edward. In Paris, he happened to run into a neighbor from Winnetka, Arthur Fisher, who was en route to Moscow with a delegation of Americans that included Carleton Washburne, the superintendent of the Winnetka Public Schools; Paul Douglas, a labor economist and future Illinois senator; and Stuart Chase, also an economist, and often given credit for coining the term “New Deal.” The group was interested in socialist ideas, and wished to take a close look at the Soviet Union, which in its early years was admired by many Americans as offering an alternative to the harsh realities of capitalism.
As a 20-year-old undergraduate, Fairfield jumped at the chance to join this unofficial delegation of distinguished American intellectuals. But he ended up disappointed with the Soviet Union, finding communist Moscow to be dirty and shabby. Porter accompanied a group to a meeting with Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Bolshevik party and the founder of the Red Army. Porter found Trotsky charming and intelligent, and open to the role of art in the new socialist society. However, by 1927 Trotsky was being pushed out of the Soviet leadership structure by Joseph Stalin, who later assumed dictatorial power.
After graduating from college, Fairfield Porter lived in New York for several years. During this time, his career as an artist progressed slowly, and he spent more time studying art than creating it. In 1932 he married Anne Channing, a Bryn Mawr graduate, and they lived mostly in Greenwich Village until moving to Winnetka in October 1936, taking up residence in his grandmother’s house after her death. They would eventually have five children.
In Winnetka, Fairfield Porter continued to embrace Marxist ideals, attracting the interest of the FBI. He continued to support Trotsky, who by 1936 was living in exile in Mexico in the home of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In the same year, the Soviet regime condemned Trotsky to death in absentia, a move that outraged many American leftists, who organized an American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. Porter volunteered to help the organization, going door-to-door in Winnetka to raise funds for Trotsky’s legal defense. To his surprise, he collected quite a lot of money, though he admitted that Trotsky’s cause was “pretty remote from the interests of our neighbors.” He considered asking Trotsky to live with his family in Winnetka, but never actually extended the invitation.
In 1938 Fairfield Porter attended an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago of the work of Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, two early-twentiethcentury French painters who would have a profound influence on his art. His first one-man show took place at the Winnetka Community House in April 1939. Porter’s father died in 1939, and later that year Fairfield and his family returned to the New York area, living first in Westchester County and later moving to Southampton on Long Island, which would remain Porter’s home for the rest of his life.
As an artist, Fairfield Porter was a late bloomer. His paintings finally began to achieve recognition in the 1950s, and he produced most of his best work during the last 20 years of his life. Many of his paintings were portraits of family and friends, domestic interiors or East Coast landscapes. His representational style and bright colors were out of step with the Abstract Expressionists in vogue at the time; Porter’s serene portraits and landscapes seemed understated, even primitive, a throwback to earlier styles. Porter also had a profound influence as an art critic, reviewing other artists’ work in prominent art publications.
Fairfield Porter died suddenly of a heart attack in 1975 while walking his dog in Southampton. In the years since his death, his stature as an artist has grown. In 1983-1984, a retrospective of his work toured major museums around the country to great acclaim, even breaking attendance records at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Today, most original Porter pieces sell at auction in excess of $200,000, and several have sold in the $500,000-$1 million range. Critics who dismissed his work in the past have come to recognize his brilliance, and most consider him to be among the greatest American painters of the twentieth century.