Family and Home
Fairfield Porter was not one to boast of his ancestry; he rarely mentioned his distinguished relatives and forebears, even later in life to those friends who would have been intrigued by them. Asked about his family background in 1968, Porter merely said, "I think I have ancestors who came over on the Mayflower. I'm not sure but I think I do." They dated back, he thought, at least to the seventeenth century. Porter knew that he could also claim leading New England intellectuals, clergymen, and statesmen of the previous century as kin. But his ancestry was just coincidental to his project of creating visual art, and he was temperamentally disinclined to think more highly of himself because he was descended from several leading American families. Moreover, his politics were such that he disliked the idea of being associated with any particular class or of claiming precedence through background.
In fact, throughout his life he suffered because of his distinguished associations. As a man interested in the socialist movement, moving among leftist intellectuals, he was thought of as the dilettantish son of a rich man, too closely bound to society by money and family to be taken seriously as a revolutionary. As an artist, too, he was often viewed as an amateur, a gentleman painter moving among bohemians. So Porter's vagueness regarding his background may be the result of defensiveness as well as indifference.
Then again, vagueness regarding background seems to run in the extended Porter family; among the surviving Porters, only one family member keeps a copy of the family tree, and he has been notably unwilling to share this information freely, even with other family members. Fairfield's older brother, the photographer Eliot Porter, wrote only a small amount about his family background in his several memoirs. Fairfield Porter's children have few, if any, records about their ancestry, apart from one copy of an unpublished biography written by their father's maternal grandfather.
In the Porter family, similar modesty prevailed where money was concerned. Fairfield Porter grew up rich, but no one in the family cared to discuss where their wealth came from, what could be done with it, or even how much of it there was. Except for an occasional mention of a tuition check or spending money, Fairfield's early family correspondence rarely takes money as a subject. Perhaps this was because the money had come into the family almost by accident, and no one in Fairfield's immediate family had a keen interest in business or was overly concerned about furthering the family fortunes. James Porter, Fairfield's father, perhaps to compensate for the amount of time he was forced to spend managing the family business, spent money freely on his hobbies boating, architecture, and travel and on furnishing his homes. But within his lifetime the real estate empire that he managed dwindled significantly, in part because of the introduction of income tax and in part because of the Great Depression. Cultured, scholarly, and aloof from commerce, James Porter and his family exhibited behavior much more typical of the landed classes of the eighteenth or early nineteenth century than of the entrepreneurs of the late nineteenth or early twentieth, for their preoccupations, like those of a distant cousin, Henry Adams, were spiritual, social, and intellectual. Neighbors considered Ruth and James Porter "Victorians in the best sense of the word," "cultural aristocrats" divorced from the mundane preoccupations of the money-making classes. From childhood, Fairfield Porter remained true to his parents' studied in difference toward money and, even as his family's wealth vanished, maintained a Chekovian aloofness toward improving his finances (to the end of his life, his painting, writing, and teaching earned him very little). Even so, in his attitude toward both his ancestry and his finances, he was as much a product of his rarefied background as he was a rebel against it. There, as in his criticism, painting, poetry, and correspondence, Porter evinced a deep respect for tradition which is best understood as a response to and product of his immediate and extended family histories.
Porter's background is exceptional in the world of twentieth-century American visual art, for he came from a family that had participated for more than a hundred years in the intellectual and political life of the country; many of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, by comparison, were first- or second-generation immigrants or European refugees. The intellectual and artistic inhibition that Porter felt during the first forty years of his life (and to some extent thereafter) was due at least in part to his awareness that he came from a brilliant and historically distinguished family and that his family's intellectual standards and expectations for him were high, even if he chose to practice fine art. Through the influence of his learned and socially engaged parents, he grew up in possession of an exceptional "gentleman's education," with a comprehensive awareness of politics, literature, art history, and the pressing social problems of the day. His development into an artist was therefore slow, because he grappled for nearly twenty years with questions about the nature and relevance of contemporary art before creating any significant work, and even in the midst of his career, while creating his best paintings, he was constantly pondering the intellectual importance of what he was doing and why he was doing it. This rigorous questioning lasted to the end of his life.
Finally, Porter grew up in an intellectual rather than a sensual household, to be more a scholar and critic than a man who takes his chief inspiration and delight in the color, light, and textures of the physical world, so, in a sense, he needed to disregard his education in order to free himself to paint. His struggle was not so much the struggle of a rich young man trying to shake off the burdens of background and class as it was a struggle between systems of belief, in which painting itself (in conjunction with art criticism) stood for Porter as a kind of credo. Porter's painterly sensuality an incredibly particular and American sensuality, one so relaxed and all-embracing that his work is sometimes misconstrued as a thoughtless recording of the commonplace eventually triumphed in a body of paintings which are among the most significant of twentieth-century realism. But painting was not at all the sort of thing he was ever expected to do.
Born in 1907 in Hubbard Woods, Illinois (a village later called Winnetka), Fairfield Porter was descended on both sides from old New England families. His mother's side of the family was the more distinguished. Ruth Porter, née Ruth Wadsworth Furness, was the great-granddaughter of General Peleg Wadsworth, a general in the Army of the Revolution, and her grandfather Alexander's sister, Zilpah Wadsworth, was the mother of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. As a girl, Ruth, who was born in 1875, had met the august Longfellow in his Cambridge home, where she was appalled when her little brother James spat out a piece of candy proffered by the renowned poet. But she could not have been too terribly embarrassed, since she was no more than seven years old at the time.
Like many New England intellectual families, the Furnesses were involved in abolition and the women's suffrage movement. Though he never saw combat, Ruth's father, Major William Eliot Furness of Philadelphia, had commanded a Massachusetts brigade Third Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War.
To what degree Ruth Porter valued her New England background is hard to know; like her son, she was not one to trade on her family name or boast of her connections; and while the many letters she has left behind attest to an abiding awareness of her many relatives and ancestors, she seems to have had no vested interest in trumpeting their importance. Still, as a cousin of the author of "The Courtship of Miles Standish," she was surely aware that New England roots run deep and that New England memories are long-lived. Her active curiosity about other people and her ability to obtain information about them through conversation were in fact a constant source of humor within the family.
The question of roots must have been of some importance to Ruth, for despite her many family connections to New England, she was a transplant. Her parents had moved to Chicago after the Civil War, where Major Furness, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard who had studied to be a Unitarian minister, chose to practice law. Ruth Furness was transplanted yet again through marriage, when the wealth of her husband, James Porter, lifted her out of a world of reform-minded middle-class professionals and placed her into the isolated role of a wealthy suburban matron. Throughout her life, Ruth struggled to remain au courant with literary, artistic, and political developments in the world beyond Winnetka; she fought off boredom and isolation with the skill and grace of a heroine from Pushkin or Tolstoy and the fact of her isolation may help account for her love of nineteenth-century Russian novels, a love she imparted to her children.
She was a woman of remarkable intelligence and industry. By the age of fourteen she had written and illustrated two little books for the amusement of her family: "Gleanings from Popular Authors: Illustrated Poems" and an "Illustrated Old Testament." The former, stitched together with thread, is the work of a girl as intent upon lampooning popular styles as upon sharing great literature with her family. "My object in setting this work before the public," she wrote in her introduction, "is mainly to encourage love of poetry in the infant mind. Love of prose is inherent, but love of poetry is rather an accomplishment." Ruth's schoolgirl scrawl emphasizes the quiet hilarity of such precocious didacticism.
But she had a serious mind. According to her son Eliot, Ruth's strong social conscience developed at Bryn Mawr, where she "made several lifelong friends who became associated with Jane Addams' Hull House in Chicago ... [who] encouraged her emotional bias towards a liberal point of view" (fig. 1). After graduation in 1896, she returned to Chicago, where she worked briefly as a grammar school teacher. After marriage to an old childhood friend five years her senior in 1898, she did not work outside the home. Rather, she ran a scrupulously ordered household on Chicago's North Shore, devoting herself to her husband and redirecting her educational zeal to the rearing of five children. When not tending to the needs of her family, supervising two household staffs, keeping up with the many details of the family's two homes (and, later, yacht), or working for a large number of charitable causes, Ruth read novels, poetry, newspapers, reviews, and magazines, including The Nation, The New Republic, and countless small leftist periodicals.
As the daughter of Unitarian abolitionists and as a woman whose own political leanings had always been egalitarian, Ruth probably found her financial elevation through marriage problematic. The many obligations of being an affluent wife and mother denied her the opportunity to work as a teacher or reformer and in many ways kept her from doing what she might have done best. Nonetheless, and despite her husband's conservatism, she remained staunchly and actively liberal, continuing after marriage to believe in the necessity of changing the American class structure, which she perceived as unfair to workers in general and to working-class racial and ethnic minorities in particular. As a friend recalled, "Her intense sense of justice made her a brave leader in many quite advanced reforms.... Her intense sympathy for the Jew when discriminated against, for the negro, as well as the proletarian under-dog of every race whom she saw unfairly treated, are too well known to require comment. Her zeal for education, for ... reform, for civil rights, for planned parenthood, brought her into prominence.... She was an intellectual, valiant and unusual woman ... outspoken in the New England way."
Recollections of Ruth Porter tend to describe her principles and activities more than they do her personality, which was active and outward-looking and could seem "awe-inspiring," "severe," and "impersonal." She could be very funny in her correspondence but was rarely confessional. Even her children remember her most strongly as an instructor and role model rather than a confidante. "It was through my mother's influence that I learned racial and religious tolerance, or more correctly, was not exposed to social prejudices," Eliot Porter recalled. "Not until I [left home] did I learn about ethnic distinctions and how they subvert personal and social judgments. The term `Christian' being uncommon in my family, I did not place myself in any particular religious category, nor did I know the distinction between Jews and non-Jews ... we thought of [Negroes merely] as the `freed people'.... Because we were exposed to a variety of political views we learned political tolerance. My father was Republican throughout his life, whereas mother, when women attained the franchise, voted Democratic or for third-part-y candidates, which encouraged in her children a tolerance for unorthodox political views."
Ruth's strong beliefs were attributable to her Unitarian upbringing. Unitarianism is a liberal form of Protestantism that stresses the free use of reason. In the nineteenth century, Unitarians appealed for their views to both the Old and the New Testaments as interpreted by reason, but most contemporary Unitarians base their noncreedal religious beliefs simply on reason, conscience, and experience, feeling that ultimate religious authority lies in the self and that moral and ethical living is the supreme witness of that religion. Ruth was intimately acquainted with Unitarian thought because her father had trained to be a Unitarian minister. In a memoir about her mother, she made special note of that upbringing, writing that she was "glad that the Unitarian exaltation of humanity ... made us free of unhappy prejudice against Jews and Negroes" (to which she added, with characteristic honesty, "though our beliefs were not much tested by experience"). Ruth formally abandoned Unitarianism for agnosticism after marriage to James Porter (who was, astoundingly for that time, an atheist), but she saw that her children were raised with a Unitarian conscience: all grew up with a strong sense of moral values and social responsibility.
When not educating her children or working for social reform, Ruth led a busy and engaged life: she hosted a neighborhood reading group (which continues to meet to this day), involved herself in community affairs, did volunteer work, and maintained an extraordinary level of daily correspondence. A neighbor later remembered her boundless physical energy: "I can see her now leaping along difficult and dangerous trails in the Canadian Rockies, rushing up a two-hundred-foot-high orange-hued sand dune in the Sahara after an exhausting day of travel, racing up hills in the Virgin Islands, plunging into the blue waters of Honolulu always eager, never flagging, keeping pace with her ever active and unusually gifted husband."
Ruth's liberal views on child rearing were in large part a continuation of the theories of her mother, Lucy Fairfield Wadsworth Furness, "a woman of great perfection of character," who in a pamphlet on bringing up children had advised that "the chief and best part of a child's education, even in book-knowledge, must come from the home ... [particularly] religious instruction.... If possible, I would have a child's mind unbiased by any dogmas or creeds until old enough to read the New Testament for itself and reasoningly, as it might any other biography." Ruth, in time, also wrote on the education of the young, advising parents to read both fiction and poetry aloud to their children from a very early age and cautioning them against many contemporary children's books: "Between the Scylla of inferior literary material and the Charybdis of candor and self-revelation on every theme imaginable," she observed in an article entitled "Children's Reading," "one must with sympathy and advice direct the small craft of a child's curiosity."
As a child, Fairfield was directed by his mother in art as well as in fiction. Ruth preferred the classic children's illustrators Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott, and Kate Greenaway, but she also admired the contemporary illustrators Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, and Jessie Wilcox Smith. Her judgments about illustration were sharp. "When I find children delighted with the harsh colors and unsympathetic drawing that distinguish the pictures of the tiresome Oz series," she wrote, "I [feel] more discouraged at the perversity in grown people who buy such books than at the lack of taste in the children." Fairfield, even as a small child, was thus long aware of the use of critical judgment in looking at pictures.
Literature, illustrated or not, was certainly much more important to the family than any of the visual arts were. When not tending to the endless details of domestic management, Ruth Porter read either silently to herself or aloud to her children. According to her son Eliot, she "had so highly developed the art of reading aloud that, as she herself sometimes admitted, she could continue automatically and without evident break for moments at a time after she had actually fallen asleep." She also wrote poetry. Her verses were simple and strongly felt, and the published ones usually concerned her children. A number were published in the "Line o' Type or Two" section of the Chicago Tribune as, for example, this poem, "To a Little Boy," published when Fairfield was nine years old (but probably about his brother Edward):
My little boy with tousled mien
And shoes and hands not over clean,
Whose jokes are nine times out of ten
Incomprehensible to men,
Your comic spirit renders birth
To innocent and wholesome mirth;
And through the grime of hands and ears
The whiteness of your soul appears.
In a family that did not demonstrate or discuss affection easily, poetry was indispensable, for the reading and writing of poetry made allowances for feeling. Fairfield Porter, at a very early age, found poetry to be a crucial form of communication; it remained so all his life. His mother was a poet; so was his wife; so were his lover, his friends, and several of his children. He expressed his love for all of them through poetry. Significantly, at the time of Ruth Porter's death in 1942, her ashes went unclaimed, but her poems were published in a pamphlet which was distributed among her family and friends.
While Ruth Porter was socially quite active, her husband was a shy, private man who was, at his best moments, whimsical, extravagant, widely accomplished, and impishly good-humored. James Foster Porter was handsome and fastidious, a man of great intellect and application, but he also had a dark side. Frustrated in his vocational ambitions, he was often awkward and withdrawn and was subject to sudden fits of temper. The personal peculiarities for which Fairfield Porter was legendary in his adulthood his long silences, indifference to social niceties, temper tantrums, and abrupt, unexplained appearances and departures were behaviors he inherited from his father.
James Porter came from a distantly New England background but had grown up in the Midwest. The Porter family had been early settlers of the Connecticut River Valley in the small farming town of North Hadley, Massachusetts, and, according to family legend, the Porters had entered the educated classes when one son, too weak to work the fields, had taken up law instead.
Edward Clark Porter, James's father, was an Episcopalian minister from Chicago who married Julia Foster, a woman so extremely pious that she was said to close her eyes when she brushed her hair "so as not to be tempted to vanity." After marriage the couple moved from Chicago to Racine, Wisconsin. They soon had two children, Maurice and James, the first of whom died in infancy. A few years later and quite unexpectedly, Edward Clark Porter died as well, of a ruptured appendix. Julia, shaken by her double loss, moved back to Chicago with her remaining son, James, then five.
Julia Foster Porter was widowed but not without resources; in fact, she was rich. Her money came from a family property that had belonged to her father, a farm on the swampy shores of Lake Michigan which had been divided equally among his three daughters at the time of his death. Early on, Julia's two sisters, Clara and Adele, had sold her their shares in the farm and moved to the more civilized world of Peterborough, New Hampshire. Thus Julia gained sole possession of a large property in what would soon become the most valuable land in the Midwest: that area of downtown Chicago now known as the Loop.
So far as James was concerned, this wealth was problematic, for it gave his lonely and possessive mother too strong a hold over him. Her money required his constant attention and bound them together. Even after James had married and started his own family, Julia Porter expected to reside within his home. In family recollection she was bitterly disappointed when James insisted on building her a house, where she could live with a companion and her household staff, even though the new house was just a few hundred feet away from his own. She expressed her anger by leaving the dinner table abruptly and retiring in silent fury to the front hallway, where she sat for some time by herself.
A pious widow, Julia Foster Porter devoted herself to philanthropy, endowing a children's charity hospital, Maurice Memorial Childrens' Hospital, in honor of her deceased firstborn son and, after her second son left home, adopting two girls from an orphanage. Eliot Porter remembered her as a woman who had "assumed lifelong mourning, dressing always in long, full black shirtwaists that buttoned closely around her neck. A costume of such formality, together with an inherent reserve, inhibited spontaneous expressions of affection by her grandchildren." Ruth Porter later suggested to her daughter that Julia Foster Porter's asocial tendencies had a direct relation to those of Ruth's husband."
Though raised in a pious household, James Porter, who was always deeply interested in natural science, announced while still a teenager that he was agnostic. According to Eliot, "My father became a dedicated protagonist of the scientific interpretation of natural phenomena with an unshakable belief in causality and a fierce rejection of purpose as a driving force in the universe. Under the influence of Darwin's writings, [he] professed agnosticism; in later years he went beyond such qualified skepticism and pronounced his disbelief in a God or the need for a supernatural explanation of existence." The highly religious Julia Foster Porter doubtless felt her son's pronouncement as a great blow.
Despite their differences over religion, James was very much like his mother: grave, generous, and principled. Like her, too, he was retiring by nature, unreasonably shy, and (particularly later in life) prone to angry silences and periods of deep depression. "James was essentially non-communicative," his daughter-in-law Anne remembered. "If we went out on the boat, he would sit at the back of the boat, looking away at the water."
After attending Harvard (class of 1895) and attaining a master's degree, James Porter began a career as a biologist. But by twenty-six he had given up, in part because poor eyesight made use of a microscope nearly impossible but also because, according to a letter from Ruth, he was "dissatisfied with it as a career." The scholarly Ruth supported James in his decision, writing a friend with determined optimism in the same letter, "For my part I like the idea of drawing houses much better than that of drawing bugs!"
After a secret engagement James had abruptly proposed, then departed alone on a four-month tour of Europe James Porter married Ruth Furness in June 1898. They took a summer-long honeymoon in England and Italy, where they toured cathedrals and other monumental structures of interest to James. While overseas, they collected photographic reproductions of these and other masterpieces; the reproductions were hung first in New York, where James studied architecture at Columbia University, and later in Chicago, where the couple returned in 1899.
James's first intention in moving back to Chicago was to work in an architectural office, but he was soon forced to give up on this, his second career, in order to help manage his mother's real estate holdings. The disappointment he felt at having to give up his own ambitions for the sake of family money lingered with him always. "He never got to exercise his artistic nature," one family member later observed. "His was a surrender to duty." Fairfield Porter grew up thinking of his father as a man of talent and vision who had been forced to raise and support a family rather than pursue his creative inclinations. Fairfield's own deep ambivalence to the duties of parenthood are probably best understood in light of his father's experience.
One consolation for James upon entering the family business of money and property management was that, with plenty of cash and a degree in architecture, he was free to design, build, and furnish his own home and a home for his mother. The site he chose for the two buildings was a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Rather than facing directly out over the lake, his house faced south to catch the winter sun. A pergola designed to look like a temple descended south along the sloping lawn to Julia Foster Porter's house.
The James Porter home was, as Eliot described it, "a large brick Greek revival house with Ionic pilasters at its corners, an entrance portico and facade featuring Corinthian columns, and Doric columned porches on each side of the house ... [James's] admiration of classical architecture was based on its purity of function and design expressed by the mathematical precision of Greek temple construction, which he meticulously maintained in the features he incorporated in his house." In later years Fairfield Porter proudly declared it "one of the most beautiful Greek Revival houses in the United States."
The grounds and surrounding neighborhood were a paradise for children. Apart from the beach, the house had access to woods and marshland, ravines and gullys, large sloping lawns, a brick terrace overlooking the lake, a long, downhill driveway, a tennis court, a barn, and stables.
James built a home for his mother on the same bluff but in a very different style, one that he felt most suited her temperament: a half-timbered cottage screened by trees, facing away from James's house. Its mock-Tudor exterior was boxy and graceless. Its interiors, with dark woodwork, leaded windowpanes, and dark green and brown grasscloth wall coverings, were beautifully detailed but claustrophobic. Photographs of the bluff, with two such very different houses so close together and yet not facing one another, make an odd impression (fig 2). Forced into close proximity with his mother, James Porter seems to have chosen to express through architecture an important psychological truth about their relationship.
The derivative nature of the building styles that James Porter selected seems to indicate he was not an innovative architect. In later years Fairfield Porter, whose own work was thought derivative, imitative, and old-fashioned, suggested that the success or failure of the houses should not be judged by the styles in which they were built but rather by their functional and structural integrity and practicality:
[Modern architects] would have said [my father's house] was a monument, not a functional building. But as a matter of fact, it's very, very much more functional [than a modern building] because it's more practical ... the difference between a modern architectured house and what my father made was simply that they gave up the look of the classical monument and decided to make something that had the look of something else.... It's just a change in fashion.... A house is a machine for living Corbusier likes this phrase but you see a house by Corbusier and it always leaks, the rain comes through the roof, he doesn't keep out the weather ... [a Corbusier house] is just an amusing and tricky thing.
By remaining impervious to fashion and sticking with a style he loved, James Porter was, in his son's estimation, being equally innovative, if in a way unacceptable to contemporary views on architecture. The same sort of thing could be said of Fairfield Porter's painting. Traditional but innovative, he refused to yield to a dominant style simply for the sake of being fashionable. Throughout his life, Fairfield Porter, who as a young man dreamt of being an architect like his father, saw his life as a continuation of his father's life and believed strongly in the validity of his father's creative work, limited in scope though it was and unfashionable though it may have been.
In truth, Fairfield Porter's relationship with his father was a complicated and exacting one. Every son craves the admiration and respect of his father, and among the talented and competitive Porter children, Fairfield sought to distinguish himself to his father through a shared love of art. Through his father, Fairfield would later claim, he had "acquired a wide ranging interest ... in architecture and the visual arts," once saying in an interview, "I think the chief influences on me as a child were my father's interest in art and architecture," and adding that "being a painter was somehow related to my father." (From his mother, by comparison, Porter felt that he had merely inherited "an interest in people and an aptitude for writing.") Fairfield's early tragedy was that not only did James reject him personally (James "disliked Fairfield"), but he also disparaged his son's ability ("Father never completely understood Fairfield's aspirations or his first immature attempts to express them," and "James was doubtful that Fairfield had the necessary talent"). The eager son claimed a shared bond with the father; the father rejected not just the son but (perhaps more woundingly) the son's claim to the bond.
By the time construction on the Porter home was complete, James and Ruth already had a two-year-old daughter, Nancy. Shortly after moving in, Ruth gave birth to her first son, Eliot, in 1901. Eliot was followed by Edward in 1904, Fairfield in 1907, and John in 1910.
When John was born, an event occurred which had a resounding effect on Fairfield and which indicates that Ruth and James, though enormously supportive of their children's educational development, lacked an essential understanding of their emotional needs. As Fairfield's wife, Anne, later recounted, "Fairfield's real name is John Fairfield Porter. He had been known as Johnny until he was three, and he knew his name and recognized it. But when his little brother was born, his parents decided to name the baby Johnny, and so they started calling John Fairfield simply Fairfield. The same day, they took Fairfield to the barber shop. I suppose they thought they were encouraging him to think of himself as a grown-up boy, by giving him a grown-up boy's haircut. Well, they cut all his hair off and changed his name, all in the same day, and he never forgot that day."
The Porters' detachment from their children's emotional vulnerability was perhaps typical of its day. Wealthy parents in the early years of the century spent little time with their children, leaving them instead to trained servants (Ruth's mother, Lucy, even wrote, "To me, there is no greater blessing to a mother than a faithful nursery-girl"). To some extent, too, this detatchment was typical of the traditional New England manner, which rarely discusses feelings or indulges in sentiment. But in other ways the Porter family was exceptional in its detachment.
The Porters did not celebrate Christmas (James being, after all, an atheist), and birthdays, too, were "non-events." Mealtimes, the traditional moment of a family's coming together, were notable in that the Porters made a regular practice of bringing books to the table and, upon finishing the meal, immediately falling into a silence broken only by the clearing of throats or the rustling of a page. Nearly everyone who visited the Porters, either in Winnetka or at their summer home in Maine, remarked on the stillness.
The changing of Fairfield's name and later incidents indicate that he lacked an essential emotional awareness and support from his parents, with the result that he grew up unable to locate his own emotions, much less communicate or acknowledge them. Fairfield's son Laurence suggested that his father "could seldom express his tender and vulnerable feelings verbally ... the emotional damage done to [him] by his father's coldness and remoteness was obvious." In like manner, "his involvement with me was sporadic and impulsive ... nearly always shaped by the adult point of view, with no sense of the effect on the child." As a result, the young Fairfield sought emotional instruction and refuge in poetry, literature, and art, where emotion could be freely, if privately, acknowledged.
The size and decoration of the Porter home in Winnetka, at once classically imposing and academically austere, suggest the sort of people Ruth and her husband knew themselves to be: cultured people dedicated to creating an environment in which they could instruct and educate their children (fig. 3). The Winnetka house is nobly proportioned, unlike the darkly fanciful house created for Julia Foster Porter (which may explain why, unlike the Julia Foster Porter house, the James Porter house still stands on its bluff above Lake Michigan). The interior had grand space, Vitruvian dimensions, and beautiful furnishings, but not much in the way of original art. James Porter preferred photographic reproductions of masterworks. In Fairfield Porter's recollection, the art on the walls was "just photographs. And you know those casts made in Boston ... of the Parthenon frieze. We had maybe ten of them around the house." An interior photograph shows a room hung with reproductions of Renaissance portraiture and, over one brick fireplace, a photograph of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam (despite Fairfield Porter's memory that "my father ... didn't understand the Renaissance at all. He didn't like it"). The house also had its share of oddities: a player organ, a greenhouse, and a room set aside for James Porter's biological specimens. Out of James Porter's taste for the Gothic (he loved Gothic architecture) came one of Fairfield Porter's earliest memories, of "a giant photograph of the cathedral of Amiens, a mysterious cast of some architectural detail, which I used to dream of as though it had a kind of conscious life, at least an awareness of me, that was, though not overtly hostile, very cold and unsympathetic." Here again, architecture gives form to an otherwise unarticulated emotional truth.
Given the emotional distance and intellectual preoccupations of the parents, the Porter children relied upon several members of the household staff for emotional support. There was the governess, Miss Probst, who taught the younger boys German, because, as Fairfield recalled, "German was the prestigious foreign language for people to learn [until] the first World War." (Later, Porter hired a young German woman to teach his own children and ended up falling in love with her.) The other staff member of greatest importance was Josephine Krup, the Swedish cook, who remained a close friend to Ruth Porter for over twenty years.
As Porter grew, he developed a reputation within the family for being bright but difficult; he was particularly known for throwing tantrums, "so much so that when Edward, as a child at a grammar school theatrical, observed Potiphar's wife onstage throwing a fit, he turned to his parents and remarked, `Just like Fairfield.'" Comparisons were frequently made between Fairfield and his little brother, Johnny, for "Fairfield screamed and cried all the time, and Johnny was sweet-tempered."
In part, Fairfield's sensitivity was due to sensitive hearing; loud noises in contained spaces were upsetting to him throughout his life. But Fairfield was frustrated by another problem as well, a reading disorder, perhaps a mild form of dyslexia, which made him read only half as fast as the other children. Nonetheless, he was a voracious reader, with a fascination for the science fiction fantasies of H. G. Wells. One of his earliest preserved letters, written at age eleven to his maternal great-aunts Rebecca and Laura Furness (Rebecca had studied painting with Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia), describes a game he has been playing with his brothers Edward and John and his neighbors Barbara Merrier and Louise Fentress based on a Wells novel: "Edward John and I have just been playing with the Pulman train that we made out of the blocks. Louise and Barbara play with us most of the time.... We pretend that the train goes around Edfaloba.... We pretend everything in Edfaloba runs by sunlight and people store it to make a light in night time." Edfaloba was an imaginary country located on Mars; the name is an acronym of Edward, Fairfield, Louise, and Barbara. "We drew maps of it," Porter recalled, "discussed it sociologically and that sort of stuff."
So far as identities within the family were concerned, Eliot was the most accomplished, the handsomest, and the most independent. He shared his father's interest in science. Nancy was perhaps her mother's best friend, but she was "cold, self-righteous, and domineering," not the sort that would have enjoyed a mother's interference in her affairs. Fairfield, on the other hand, was both intelligent and malleable. He exhibited an interest in language, poetry, and literature from his earliest years, unlike his brothers Edward and John.
Significantly, Fairfield's first memory of looking at a painting includes his mother: "I remember being taken to the Art Institute [of Chicago] by my mother and ... the first paintings that I can remember in the Art Institute are [by] Giovanni di Paolo. I think it was because it had the Beheading of St. John the Baptist in it, which was sort of fascinatingly gory.... When I was twelve [I remember seeing] an exhibition of Picasso, that Egyptian period, those great big heads.... And I thought, if this is what painting is today, it's a significant activity."
Ruth's encouragement of her son's artistic inclinations was a great help to him. Fairfield received early support from grammar school teachers as well, but as he recalled, "My art interest wasn't that decisive or active."
By the time he reached high school he attended New Trier, a public school which would eventually become one of the best in the nation but which at the time was merely a "good ordinary public school" he had developed into a quiet, introspective, and socially awkward adolescent, paralyzed by self-consciousness about his appearance, his lack of physical prowess, and a vague but persistent sense that he was somehow not acceptable, which came to him mainly from his parents: "Once all my brothers and my sister were photographed (I was about 12) and the pictures were all acceptable except mine (that is, to my parents) and I was sent back again and again to the photographer, until at last they decided to accept what the photographer had made, though they still didn't like it. I would have been quite content with the first photograph, but I hated each succeeding effort more and more. Ever since I have disliked pictures of myself: they are associated with a personality that exists in someone else's mind."