After high school, Porter attended Howard University in Washington D.C. There he received his bachelor's degree in art. In 1927, Porter was appointed as an assistant professor at Howard. Later, he studied with Dimitri Ramanowsky in New York, at the Art Students' League and at the Sorbonne in Paris. His studies came to an end after Porter received a master's degree in art from New York University in 1936.
During the time he studied, Porter painted, held exhibitions and traveled the world to expose himself to different forms of art. In 1929, six of his paintings were exhibited by the Harmon Foundation with an honorable mention. His work, Woman Holding a Jug, won him first prize in the Arthur A. Schomburg Portrait Contest. In 1940, Porter's work was included in the exhibit "The American Negro Exposition". Porter's scholarly publications include Modern Negro Art, a book that it is considered one of the most important ever written on the subject. He also wrote many articles on art.
Porter's work earned him numerous solo exhibits including one at the Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington D.C. He also earned two Rockefeller Foundation grants,a research grant from the Washington Post and the National Gallery of Art Medal. At the National Gallery of Art's twenty-fifth anniversary, Porter was named one of America's most outstanding men of the arts. In 1970, James Amos Porter died in Washington D.C.
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