Porter was born most likely in 1847 in Hartford. His father was possibly a mill worker and his mother worked as a servant. His family moved to the nearby village of Rockville, now part of Vernon, CT, by the 1850s. Porter lost seven of his siblings to illness and war by the late 1860s. He was the first of his siblings to graduate from high school in 1865. After two years of studying art at Wesleyan Academy (now known as the Wilbraham & Monson Academy) in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, he was the first African American to be admitted to the prestigious National Academy of Design in New York City in 1869, where he first exhibited and received widespread praise and attention for his work. While he was studying, he would return in the summers back to Rockville to paint and teach art classes.
By 1878, he moved back to Hartford and established a studio. The city was experiencing tremendous growth, and its wealthy citizens were interested in art and culture and had the money to begin or add to art collections. Porter's traditional academic art education made him a standout. While in Hartford, Porter created many of the still life paintings that he is known for today. A number of his paintings of fruit were not typical of the period, as they did not include tableware, porcelain, and glassware and unusual touches such as insects. His apple paintings were a commercial success and he painted apples for much of his career.
In the early 1880s he travelled to Europe to continue to paint and sell his art and would come back to New York City and Hartford over the course of the later part of his career. He gained support and patronage from Mark Twain, Frederic Edwin Church, and partnered with artist Daniel Wentsworth over the course of his career. He finally settled in Rockville in the last 20 something years of life.
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