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Home Is Where the Art Is

by John Freeman Gill
Friday, July 15, 2016
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Fairfield Porter, the noted mid-20th-century realist painter and critic, lived and worked in an old sea captain’s house in Southampton, New York, for the last quarter century of his life. But if you suggested to him that the village might be important to his art, he was quick to demur. The attraction of Long Island’s East End was nothing more than the ocean and the relative proximity to New York City, he insisted in a 1972 letter, and “if you try to make something of our living in Southampton rather than in another place, you won’t find much material.”


Nonetheless, Porter painted so many scenes in and around his house on South Main Street that a powerful, if inadvertent, sense of place emerged on his canvases, along with an intriguing record of the family, friends and fellow artists who filled his sprawling, disorderly home to overflowing.


Built around 1835 by a ship captain named Rogers and financed with the proceeds from a single whale, 49 South Main Street is a rambling, white-shingled frame house currently listed for sale for $5.55 million with Harald Grant of Sotheby’s International Realty. Although its profile from the street is modest, the two-story home is deceptively spacious, with seven bedrooms, five fireplaces and a comfortable covered porch supported by fluted columns.


In 1949, when the artist and his wife, Anne, bought the house for $25,000 from a descendant of the captain who’d commissioned it, the purchase included a stable out back and a meadow that extended down to Lake Agawam. The house was characterized by a ramshackle grandeur that gave many of Porter’s paintings, in the words of the New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett, an “almost gothic-novel feel,” tempering their intimate domestic warmth, in some ways reminiscent of the French painter Édouard Vuillard, with “a kind of cold New England breath.”


Porter did what he could to make the deteriorating house presentable, painting its woodwork and sanding and varnishing its floors. He transformed the stable into a studio, outfitting its second story with a skylight and a north-facing window. On the stable’s eastern wall, facing the back of the house, were hayloft doors that he liked to fling open, admitting the famous knife-blade East End light and swatches of scenery that often appeared in the background of portraits he painted there. 


Oftentimes, he painted the tree-house view of Southampton he saw from that hayloft. “You may ask how interesting it is to paint that same little house over and over again,” said Alicia G. Longwell, the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman chief curator of the Parrish Art Museum in nearby Water Mill. “But like most modern artists he was looking at what you could do with color and line rather than the subject matter itself.”


Although Porter’s family often posed for him, the house and studio many times come across as vivid central characters in his South Main Street interiors, no less than the people who inhabited those interiors. As critic Lawrence Campbell wrote in Art News, “the children are never alone because the furniture lives too.” The stove in one painting, for example, “is not displeased at being cast in the role of prima-donna.”


More than once, Porter painted his son Laurence playing a 1918 Steinway upright piano in the front hall, lavishing as much or more attention on the house—the beautifully rendered wallpaper and the sidelights of the front door—than on the boy, with whom he had a distant relationship. “Families are complex, but who else are you going to press into posing?” said Dr. Longwell while giving a visitor a tour of undisplayed Porter paintings in the “vault” of the Parrish museum.


For his part, Laurence enjoyed posing, an activity that served as father-son time in the Porter household in the same way that tossing a baseball might in another family. “I was always happy to sit for paintings, because it was a way of helping my father and being with him,” he told Justin Spring for the insightful biography Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art.


Katharine, fourth of the Porters’ five children, was born shortly before the family moved to Southampton from Manhattan, and for a while she was the painter’s favorite model. When the poet Frank O’Hara, a friend, observed Porter at work for a 1955 profile he published in Art News, it was five-year-old Katie whom the artist chose to paint, sitting in an armchair by the living-room fireplace. According to John T. Spike’s Fairfield Porter: An American Classic, the artist even “paid” his little girl. For each hour she posed, she was “duly remunerated with a metal washer, which she delightedly called a ‘washer-woman.’”


The real washer-woman, however, was Anne, a self-described “terrible housekeeper” who put her own work as a poet on the back burner to raise the couple’s children and do her best to keep the home functioning. Although Porter sometimes grumbled about the house’s disarray, it suited his aesthetic as a painter. “He would famously tell his wife not to clean up the table after breakfast so he could paint it as it was,” said Dr. Longwell. “He felt anything could make a painting: spilled cereal, a milk pitcher. It’s not a glorification of domesticity or ‘Home Sweet Home.’ It’s just that he takes the ordinary and presents it in a way that’s extraordinary: that table, from that morning, on that day. There’s a real sense of temporality.”


The home’s generous proportions and equally generous hosts also conspired to create a chaotic if creative environment. It was “a sort of nonstop house party,” the art critic Peter Schjeldahl has said, in which the “upper-class bohemian” Porter entertained his “impoverished, wacky friends.”


Visitors included a rotating cast of fellow painters and young poets from the New York School like O’Hara and two future Pulitzer Prize winners, James Schuyler and John Ashbery, both of whom Porter painted. Schuyler, an unstable fellow, came by for a visit and stayed 11 years.


In New York art circles, 49 South Main Street came to be waggishly known as Porter’s Rest Home for Broken-Down New Yorkers. When the painter Larry Rivers slit his wrists in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Porter brought him to his Southampton house. There, according to Spring’s biography, Rivers spent a couple of weeks reading Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way and Porter painted a frank portrait of him with his wrists bandaged. Other artist friends painted by Porter included Jane Freilicher, Elaine de Kooning and Jane Wilson.


In 1980, five years after Porter died of a heart attack at the age of 68 while walking his dog in Southampton, Anne sold the house and moved into a smaller one she’d had built on the property. As executor of the artist’s estate, Anne donated more than 200 of her husband’s artworks, mostly paintings, to the Parrish Art Museum, then in Southampton. The trove is the world’s largest collection of Porter’s work.


Porter’s artistic legacy ended up contributing to the Parrish in a less conventional way as well. In 2005, when the Swiss architecture firm of Herzog & de Meuron was developing design ideas for the new Parrish site in Water Mill, its architects visited the converted stable where Porter had painted, along with the studios of artists William Merritt Chase, Roy Lichtenstein and Chuck Close, who worked in a converted barn in Sagaponack.


The final design of the striking new museum, which opened in 2012, grew out of those visits. Taking as its starting point the form of these East End artists’ studios, the architects created a long, barnlike structure with a double-peaked roof and soaring interior spaces. Two paintings of the Porters’ Southampton living room, one by Porter himself and the other by Robert Dash, are on view there through October 30 as part of an exhibition called “Home Sweet Home.”


While Porter may have maintained that the East End was not particularly important to his art, his art has certainly become important to the East End.


John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in Spring 2017


Photos by Richard Taverna courtesy of Sotheby’s International Realty.
Paintings from Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill. Gift of the estate of Fairfield Porter.

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