Fairfield Porter is best remembered for his bold paintings of quiet domestic life, enhanced by his progressive interpretations of light and color. Among Porter's most celebrated canvases are scenes depicting figures in an outdoor setting such as the present work, James Deely, in which he emphasizes natural light and atmosphere. With its framework of New England architecture, James Deely evokes the quiet, contemplative summers Porter spent in the Northeast.
William C. Agee notes, "[Porter's] paintings convey a strong sense of place and presence, but for him the literal transcription of what he saw before him was beside the point. The actual subject was of little concern; rather it was in the paint itself that he found the life, the vitality, and the wholeness of the painting. He understood that the difference between realism and abstraction is not as simple as it seems...Rather than literally describing, Porter determined the relations and connections between things, and for him it was these relations that were the vital elements in a painting." (Fairfield Porter: An American Painter, Southampton, New York, 1993, p. 11) In James Deely forms are simplified and shades of green, blue and pink dominate the painting. The sitter relaxes on his veranda under a clear, bright sky which creates geometric shadows that replicate the shapes of the chair, the pillars and the mountains.
Porter's works from the last fifteen years of his life are considered to be the best of his career. Painted in 1974, James Deely encapsulates the artist's mature style which incorporates more abstract forms, a brighter color scheme, and freer, more immediate impressions of his subjects. Kenworth Moffett writes that "[Porter's] mature paintings ask to be considered in the context of American Art. Most obviously, they relate to that realist tendency we find in Homer and Hopper...It is not that Porter was influenced by Homer or Hopper, but that all three were American realists who found the same thing. With Porter, this light was explored for its own sake and for what it did to color...He saw his surroundings through the medium of paint and so became a 'painter's painter,' admired for the boldness and sensitivity visible in the aesthetic choices, especially the handling, color, tone juxtapositions, and 'weights.' This is very much what Porter's pictures are about. For all of their tact and understatement, Porter's mature paintings can be very bold when it comes to painterly values. His pictures seem ordinary, 'but the extraordinary is everywhere.'" (Fairfield Porter: Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction, Boston, Massachusetts, 1982, p. 38)
James Deely was painted at the sitter's home near Monument Mountain, close to Stockbridge and Great Barrington, Massachusetts. In a letter to Jim Deely dated 31 May 1974, the artist discusses his predilection for the landscape: "The atmosphere at Stockbridge...was so clear and mountainy...Still, mountains are different, and Monument Mountain has such a three-dimensional shape: it made me feel nostalgic for the one summer I spent in the Canadian Rockies once when I was a child."
Fairfield Porter painted the present portrait of James Deely to replace a previous commissioned portrait of Deely from 1967. Believing he created a perfect painting through his well planned compositional devices and color choices, Porter stated that the present version of James Deely is one of his best paintings ever produced. In a letter dated 21 May 1974 addressing the possibility of the painting's inclusion in an upcoming exhibition, Porter states: "I just finished a portrait of James Deely, this week end, at Stockbridge, which was to replace a portrait Mr. Deely commissioned from me about 5 years ago, and that I wasn't satisfied with--nor was he, really. But the new one I think may be one of the great American portraits...I recommend the portrait of Elaine Frater, as almost as good as James Deely--these being in my opinion the best portraits I have ever done." The masterful handling of light and color makes James Deely one of Fairfield Porter's greatest achievements in portrait painting.