Painter, printmaker, and art writer. His calm, carefully structured, and somewhat decorative representational paintings look back through impressionism to the old masters but also respond to modernist abstraction. In addition to distinguished portraits, his subjects included figural studies, landscapes, and still lifes, mostly drawn from domestic life and intimately familiar surroundings. However, the dependably genial tone of Porter's work, an aesthetic device, masks misfortunes and psychological tensions within the very subjects of home and family that the artist celebrated so appealingly. An astute observer of contemporary and traditional art, he wrote art criticism for many years, served as an associate editor at Art News, wrote a regular weekly column for The Nation, and published a monograph on Thomas Eakins (1959). A selection of his shorter pieces, edited by Rackstraw Downes, appeared as Fairfield Porter: Art in Its Own Terms; Selected Criticism, 1935–1975 (1979). Born in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, in 1928 Porter graduated from Harvard University with a major in fine arts, mainly art history. For the next two years, he worked at the Art Students League, where Boardman Robinson and Thomas Hart Benton numbered among his teachers. He also made the acquaintance of John Marin, whose work he admired, as well as Alfred Stieglitz. He had already traveled rather widely in Europe on two prior occasions when he departed for a year in Italy in September 1931. There he met Bernard Berenson and closely studied the Renaissance masters. Following his return to New York in 1932, he became active in left-wing politics, an interest he continued to pursue while again residing in Winnetka from 1936 to 1939. At the end of 1938, when their work appeared in an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, he was greatly impressed by the stylized realism of Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard. Yet, his wide-ranging taste encompassed also the work of his friend Willem de Kooning, whose friendship he renewed when he moved east again. In 1939 Porter took up residence in Peekskill, on the Hudson River above New York, but three years later moved back into the city. In 1949 he moved permanently to Southampton, on eastern Long Island. There and in Maine, on his family's privately owned Great Spruce Head Island in Penobscot Bay, where he had summered since childhood, his characteristic style flowered. Concentrating on effects of light and color, mostly in pastel tones, he flattened space to emphasize formal relationships and painterly surface. Once he had arrived at this distinctive expression of personal feeling, his style changed little, but bolder and less naturalistic colors appear in later paintings. Porter's color lithographs resemble his paintings, but he also used the medium to create black-and-white images.
His brother, photographer Eliot Porter (1901–90), an early master of the medium's chromatic technology, paved the way for nature photography in color. His delicate, high-resolution images capturing the moods and poetry of landscape promoted acceptance of color photography as a fine art. Also born in Winnetka, Eliot Furness Porter preceded his brother to Harvard, where he graduated in 1924 with a major in chemical engineering. He continued there in medical school and received his MD degree in 1929. For the next decade he remained at Harvard to teach and do research in bacteriology. As an amateur ornithologist, he had photographed birds since he was a teenager, gradually turning his camera to other nature subjects as well. In January 1939, at the end of a successful show at Stieglitz's American Place gallery, he opted for a career in photography. Within a few years he found general recognition as the country's foremost noncommercial color photographer. His compositions rely on the organization of hues rather than black-and-white pattern. Later, he traveled widely, recording scenery and its individual details with the aim of fostering environmental awareness by drawing attention to nature's beauty and its relationship to mankind's experience. The first of his several books published by the Sierra Club, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World (1962), with the photographer's selection of texts by Henry David Thoreau, was also the organization's first color book in a long series of handsomely produced volumes for the general public. A double volume, The African Experience and The Tree Where Man Was Born, compiled with Peter Matthiessen, initiated projects focused on human culture. Porter's numerous other photographic collections include The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado (1963), Birds of North America: A Personal Selection (1972), Antarctica (1978), Eliot Porter's Southwest (1985), Maine (1986), and, with Wilma Stern, Monuments of Egypt (1990). Summer Island: Penobscot Country (1966) includes autobiographical reminiscences of his experiences in Maine. A resident of the area since 1946, he died in Santa Fe, New Mexico.