Fairfield Porter was born near Chicago in 1907, the fourth of five children of James and Ruth Furness Porter. His father was an architect, his mother a poet from a literary family, and Porter grew up in an environment where art and literature were highly valued. His father designed the family homes in Winnetka, Illinois and on Great Spruce Head Island, an island in Maine that he purchased for the family in 1912. Fairfield Porter spent summers there from the age of six, and views of the island, its structures, and neighboring towns were the subjects of many paintings.
Porter attended Harvard from 1924 to 1928, studying fine art with Arthur Pope and philosophy with Alfred North Whitehead. After graduating from Harvard, Porter moved to New York City and took studio classes at the Art Students League from 1928 until 1930, studying with Boardman Robinson and Thomas Hart Benton, and immersing himself in the art and radical politics of Greenwich Village. In the 1940s, he studied at Parson's School of Design with art restorer Jacques Maroger, adopting the Maroger recipe for an oil medium in his own painting.
To further his education as an artist, Porter traveled to Europe in 1931, where he spent time with expatriate art theorist Bernard Berenson and his circle. When he returned to New York, he allied himself with progressive, socialist organizations, and like many of his contemporaries, worked at creating socially relevant art. He did artwork for the John Reed Club, a communist group; taught drawing classes for Rebel Arts, a socialist arts organization; wrote for their magazine, Arise!; and created a mural for the Queens branch of the Socialist Party. Living in the Chicago area for several years in the 1930s, he illustrated chapbooks for the socialist poet John Wheelwright's Poems for a Dime and Poems for Two Bits series. Porter's financial contributions to the radical Chicago publication Living Marxism kept it afloat for several years.
In 1932, Porter married Anne Channing, a poet from Boston, and they settled in New York. The Porters had five children, and their first son, born in 1934, suffered from a severe form of autism. In the next decade, they had two more sons, and spent three years in Porter's hometown of Winnetka, where he had his first solo exhibition of paintings. When they returned to New York in 1939, the Porters became friends with Edwin Denby, Rudy Burkhardt, and Elaine and Willem de Kooning. Porter became an earnest admirer of Willem de Kooning's artwork and was among the first to review and purchase it.
In 1949, the Porters moved to the small, seaside town of Southampton, New York. Their two daughters were born in 1950 and 1956. Like the family home on Great Spruce Head Island, Southampton became the setting of many of Porter's paintings. In fact, almost all of his mature paintings depict family homes, surrounding landscapes, family members, and friends. Porter was an individualistic painter who embraced figurative art in the late 1940s and 1950s, when abstract expressionism was the prevailing aesthetic trend. Porter once made a comment that his commitment to figurative painting was made just to spite art critic Clement Greenberg, a respected critic and ideologue who had championed abstract expressionism and denigrated realism as passé.
Porter established his reputation as a painter and as a writer in the 1950s. John Bernard Myers of the vanguard Tibor de Nagy gallery gave Porter his first New York exhibition in 1951 and represented him for the next twenty years. That same year Tom Hess, editor of ArtNews, hired Porter to write art features and reviews. Porter went on to contribute to ArtNews until 1967 and also became art editor for The Nation beginning in 1959, the same year his article on Willem de Kooning won the Longview Foundation Award in art criticism. As a critic, Porter visited countless galleries and studios, and he gained a reputation for writing about art with the understanding and vested interest of an artist, and with the same independence from fashionable ideas that he demonstrated in his artwork.
The 1950s and 1960s were prolific years for Porter's writing and art, and saw the development of his critical ideas and the maturation of his painting. Porter enjoyed an elder status among a circle of younger artists such as Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, and Alex Katz, and their many poet friends, now known as the New York School of Poetry: Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, and others. Porter himself wrote poetry and was published in the 1950s, sometimes alongside poems by his wife, who had been publishing poetry since the 1930s (twice in the vanguard Chicago journal, Poetry). The Porters' correspondence is laced with poems they and their friends sent back and forth, often about and dedicated to each other.
Besides his annual exhibitions at Tibor de Nagy and later Hirschl and Adler Galleries, Porter exhibited regularly at the Whitney, and had one-man exhibitions at many museums including the Rhode Island School of Design (1959), The University of Alabama (1963), Cleveland Museum of Art (his first retrospective, 1966), Trinity College (1967), the Parrish Art Museum (1971), the Maryland Institute of Art (1973), and the 1968 Venice Biennale. He also had residencies at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (1964) and Amherst College (1969). Porter died in 1975 at age 68. A full-scale retrospective of his artwork was held at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, Boston in 1983, and a study center and permanent home for his artwork was established at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton through a donation made by Anne Porter. A posthumous collection of his poems was published by Tibor de Nagy Editions in 1985, and a catalogue raisonnée, edited by Joan Ludman, was published in 2001.
This biography relies heavily on information found in Justin Spring's biography of Porter, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (Yale University Press, 2000).