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Micah Williams, Portrait Artist

Lita Solis-Cohen | July 14th, 2013


Clarkson Crolius (1773-1843) by Micah Williams, pastel on paper, 28" x 24", circa 1817, possibly done in the Cheesequake area, Middlesex County, New Jersey. Clarkson worked in the stoneware pottery business begun by his grandfather Johan William Crolius in New York City, but Crolius potters may have run the Morgan Pottery in Cheesequake in Middlesex County after the death of Captain James Morgan. Clarkson apparently visited Middlesex County long enough to have his portrait done. A direct descendant owned the portrait when Irwin F. Cortelyou made her checklist in the 1970’s. It is now in the collection of Edward King Jr., a major lender to the exhibition.


Ann Vandervoort Rapalye Van Mater (1769-1857), 30 5/8" x 26½", pastel on paper, in the collection of the Monmouth County Historical Association. Micah Williams used his pastels with great skill in depicting the lined face of this woman and even shows the corneal blood vessels in the corner of her eyes. Note the detail of the black lace over a black silk shawl. Ann and her husband, Gilbert Van Mater, are shown in front of yellow drapery swags, which somehow bring them into our space.


Gilbert Van Mater (1762-1832), 31¾" x 26½", pastel on paper, Middletown area, Monmouth County, New Jersey, after December 1820. Collection of Monmouth County Historical Association. Bequest of Henry W. Disbrow, 1936.


A young girl in a pink dress is shown sitting in a white-painted fancy chair, holding a book. This 1818-25 pastel on paper by Micah Williams is 23 7/8" x 19½" and has a blue background. The white chair is stenciled in gold. Her pink dress and coral beads and the way she fills the paper make this portrait of a serious four- or five-year-old one of the most successful portraits of ­children by Williams.

Photos courtesy Monmouth County Historical Association

Some of America’s greatest treasures are in small historical societies and museums off the beaten track. That was the message of an inspiring slide talk by William Hosley at Winterthur’s 60th anniversary symposium in September 2012. The exhibition Micah Williams: Portrait Artist at the Monmouth County Historical Association in Freehold, New Jersey, is just what Hosley was talking about. Not only does this intimate exhibition tell the story of people who lived at a specific time and place in the second and third decades of the 19th century, but it also brings into focus the work of a first-rate portrait painter.

The 67 portraits on view explore family relationships and record fashion and furniture, and some of his sitters hold things denoting their occupations. Most of these prosperous folks lived in small towns and on farms in New Jersey from 1815 to 1835. Williams also painted some shipmasters and city folk during his three years in New York City, 1828-30.

The best of Williams’s pastels and oil portraits are intimate and penetrating. He has been classed with such folk artists as Erastus Salisbury Field, Ammi Phillips, John Brewster, and William Matthew Prior, who have left us a painted record of the generation who lived in the first half of the 19th century, before the age of photography.

Micah Williams’s style was recognized before he was identified as the artist. When Mrs. J. Amory (Margaret) Haskell (1864-1942) was amassing the most extensive collection of Americana ever brought together by one person (it took Parke-Bernet Galleries ten sales, 1944-45, to disperse Haskell’s hoards of glass, ceramics, silver, and furniture that she did not give to museums), she bought six portraits by Micah Williams. At that time, they had been identified as by Henry Conover. She gave them to the Monmouth County Historical Association.

“By the late 1950’s Monmouth County Historical Association had amassed the largest public collection of this artist’s work,” writes Bernadette M. Rogoff, curator of the Monmouth County Historical Association’s collections, in the catalog for the exhibition. She said she had been working on this project for 20 years and it was hard to limit the number of portraits to just 67.

In the catalog, Rogoff tells how in the 1950’s Monmouth County resident Irwin Fearn Cortelyou (1896-1997) investigated the artist. After studying the handwritten inscriptions on several portraits Cortelyou discovered that Henry Conover was the subject of the painting and the artist was Micah Williams. In 1954 Cortelyou published the first of four articles on Micah Williams in The Magazine Antiques,rescuing Micah Williams from anonymity. Cortelyou tracked down Anna I. Morgan, the artist’s great-granddaughter, who confirmed Williams’s profession as a portrait artist and said he made his own pastel sticks and had been a silver-plater before he became a portrait painter. After traveling throughout New Jersey for a decade, he moved to New York City to improve his skills in oil painting.

Rogoff is still not certain where Williams was born. She has documented that he was living in New Brunswick, New Jersey, by December 1806 and married Margaret Priestly, daughter of John and Catherine Voorhees Priestly, on Christmas Eve of that year. By 1812 they had three daughters. Soon after their marriage Williams went into partnership with his brother-in-law in the silver-plating business, doing extensive work for local harness, bridle, and carriage makers.

These auspicious beginnings were brought to a halt by the depression following the War of 1812. Williams could not avoid insolvency. His property was seized, and he ended up in debtor’s prison for about two months. He provided a list of 123 creditors and a debt of more than $5456.75. Left with the clothes on his back, the 32-year-old Williams had to find some way to support his wife and four children, one a newborn, so by the spring of 1815 he began creating pastel portraits of local residents.

Because his style changed little, Rogoff finds it hard to date artworks by Williams. Of the 272 identified portraits by Micah Williams only 11 are inscribed with the month, day, and year of completion, and an additional six with the year of completion. Newspaper sheets used as a secondary support for the paper that Williams used for pastels often help date a work. Rogoff believes Williams had access to books and actual art instruction when he chose the life of an itinerant artist. She cites Archibald Robertson’s instruction book, Elements of Graphic Arts, and notes that Robertson started the first American art school (in New York City), though Rogoff found no record of Williams attending the school.

Williams was immediately successful. Monmouth County, New Jersey, was one of his largest sources of patronage. A successful agricultural area, it was excellent for grazing animals and growing fruit and vegetables for the city markets. The descendants of Dutch and English families (Smock, Smalley, Schenck, Dubois, Van Mater, Conover, Longstreet, and Vanderveder) appear in identified portraits as doctors, horse and dairy farmers, orchardists, politicians, militia officers, storekeepers, potters, silversmiths, carpenters, and their wives and children. According to Rogoff’s count, between 1818 and 1821 Williams produced more than 60 portraits of Monmouth County residents. Williams was recommended from one to another.

Williams moved to New York City in 1828 with his children ranging in age from six to 21. (He had explored oil painting before moving there, as shown by the accomplished oil portraits of Aaron Osborn and his wife, Harriet, painted before Aaron Osborn’s death in 1827.) Williams appears in the Longworth’s New York directories as a portrait artist living on Clinton Street in 1829. For three successive years his name and address is listed in the directory. He produced at least two portraits of unknown shipmasters, his neighbors on Clinton Street, and his only full-length portrait of a girl. One of his colleagues painted a portrait of Micah Williams (in a small oval format in oils) with the artist holding his palette and three brushes. The anonymous painting is in the exhibition. The Williams family moved back to New Brunswick in 1831.

In the catalog Rogoff discusses how Williams stretched and glued heavy paper, backed with newspaper, over white pine strainers for each portrait. Rogoff lists 18 different newspapers used by Williams for the backing, which aids in dating. His favorites were the True American and the Trenton Federalist. The panels were a standard size, 25" to 26" high and 21" to 22" wide. The smallest portrait is of Emeline Conover at 14" x 12". It is lined with an 1816 Trenton newspaper.

Newspaper linings show that Williams returned to Monmouth County to make a likeness of DeLafayette Schenck and his wife in 1827, eight years after he had completed the portrait of Schenck’s brother Daniel and his wife. His pastel style and methods of working had not changed. He used his homemade pastels skillfully to depict age lines differently on males than females and cleverly depicted the outdoor ruddy complexion of farmers and sailors. His clients wore stylish clothes, which the artist detailed. Young girls wore bright colors; old women wore black. Young girls had some wild hairdos and wore big combs; older women wore day caps, white embroidered collars, or black lace shawls, which Williams skillfully painted. Many of his subjects sit in fancy chairs. The green-painted fancy chair in which Dinah Van Vickle Morgan, the wife of stoneware potter Jonathan Morgan, sits has been lent to the exhibition along with her portrait.

Williams painted just 18 children under the age of ten, and only three between the ages of ten and 16. He painted seven portraits of a mother with an infant in her arms. His portraits of adults and children show them each holding something significant. For instance, one young boy in a tight green suit with brass buttons holds an orange, and a girl in a pink dress, a peach; sometimes the subject holds a small book, showing literacy; a shipmaster holds a spyglass; an old woman holds a dove.

Rogoff writes that Williams could complete a pastel portrait in a day. Oil portraits may have taken longer. Only 18 oil portraits have been identified or attributed to Williams. Rogoff finds his later portraits more accomplished than his earlier work, more sophisticated and elaborate. All his portraits fill the frame.

For 20 years Williams was prolific. In 1835 he stopped painting abruptly. (Rogoff writes, “No portraits [by him] can be dated firmly to the period between early-to-mid-1835 and his death….”) Rogoff believes he may have been injured. She found newspaper reports that a tornado struck New Brunswick on June 19, 1835, and every structure in a three-block area was leveled; five people died. She wonders if Williams was injured. He died two years later, buried in the churchyard of the New Brunswick First Presbyterian Church, which in 1921 relocated its graveyard to the Van Liew Cemetery in North Brunswick, where a gravestone is inscribed “Our Father, Micah Williams Died November 21, 1837, in the 55th year of his age.” The headstone probably dates from the time of the death of his wife, Margaret, in 1863.

The catalog gives a full-page color picture and all the pertinent facts about the sitters and their families for each of the 67 portraits, 22 of which belong to the Monmouth County Historical Society. Others come from private and public collections. The catalog should find a place on library shelves. The exhibition will not travel. It opened on May 19 and will close on September 28. It is well worth a visit. (Freehold is about a 75-minute drive from Philadelphia and an hour from New York City.) The Monmouth County Historical Association is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 or $2.50 for seniors and children. Children under six are free. Directions are on the Web site (www.monmouthhistory.org) or call (732) 462-1466 for information.


Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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