James Amos Porter, The Father of African-American Art History

Swann’s African-American Fine Art Department, writes about the catalogue cover image for the upcoming auction Shadows Uplifted: The Rise of African-American Art.

The cover for our February 13 auction catalogue is a self-portrait of James Amos Porter, who is often described as the father of African-American art history. In addition to his notoriety as an artist and the author of Modern Negro Art, he was an influential teacher at Howard University for more than forty years.

After reading a brief account of a forgotten African-American artist, Robert S. Duncanson, Porter decided to search for more information about neglected African-American artists. Porter’s research on African-American artists and artisans became the basis of his master’s thesis while studying at New York University. Using his thesis as a foundation, Modern Negro Art was published in 1943. The book would become the first comprehensive history of African-American art and is still considered a classic. It places African-American art in the context of American art history.

Self-Portrait dates to his first sabbatical year in 1935, when he studied at New York University and the Sorbonne, University of Paris, and is the first portrait painting by Porter to come to auction. This image is one of the best-known self-portraits by an African-American artist, and has been extensively exhibited and reproduced. For instance, this very image was reproduced in the catalogue of Swann’s February 25, 2010 auction of Printed and Manuscript African Americana. In that particular sale, Swann auctioned Porter’s archive, which consisted of artist files documenting his research into artists in the African Diaspora, with a primary focus on African-American artists. The archive included correspondence, photographs, and printed material. Self-Portrait was pictured above the description of the archive in the catalogue. The archive is now in Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.