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Prior Knowledge

Lita Solis-Cohen | May 12th, 2013

A Book Review


Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed

by Jacquelyn Oak and Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw

Fenimore Art Museum, 2012, 64 pages, softbound, $29.95 plus S/H from Fenimore Art Museum (
) or (888) 547-1400.

 When an auctioneer must catalog a small unsigned flat-painted portrait of a man, woman, or child, he or she often calls it Prior-Hamblin school and estimates it at $5000/7000. If it is a pretty girl or an adorable child, it may bring more. If it’s a full-length child with a toy or a double or triple portrait of children, it could bring a lot more. If it is signed by William Matthew Prior, there is usually keen competition for it, but Prior’s large academic pictures generally bring less than his flat-style portraits even when they are signed and the sitter is identified. The so-called “middling style” pictures can bring high middling prices, depending on the subject.

If the picture is unsigned, how can you tell it’s Prior? That’s what everyone asks. For years there have been rumors that scholars in Cooperstown, New York, were studying Prior and Prior-school painters and would mount an exhibition accompanied by a catalog that would sort all this out and give simple formulas.

In 2012 Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown mounted a Prior exhibition and published an informative catalog, Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed by Jacquelyn Oak, registrar at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, with an essay by Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, an associate professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania.

The exhibition has traveled. Forty Prior oil paintings, mostly portraits of middle-class Americans, are now at the American Folk Art Museum at 2 Lincoln Square, New York City, where they will remain through May 26. The exhibition reveals the role William Matthew Prior played in making art for the middle class and how he linked his business of painting with the religious fervor of the Millerites. Because Prior painted several pictures of African-Americans, Shaw also discusses race relations and the abolitionist movement before the Civil War.

The exhibition and catalog point out differences among Prior’s academic, middling, and flat likenesses, but they do little about sorting out the more than a dozen painters in the so-called Prior-Hamblin school. That was apparently too large a task, and it was put off for another time.

Four portraits by three Prior-school painters are illustrated: two by Sturtevant J. Hamblin and one each by George Hartwell and William Kennedy. Three other painters are named: George Alden, E.W. Blake, and Jacob Bailey Moore, with the caveat that George Alden might be the name of the sitter, not the painter. Folk art collectors had hoped for more.

The focus of the show is a biography of Prior and his three styles of painting. In the exhibit Prior’s portraits include an elegant black couple, Nancy and William Lawson, middling-style portraits daringly signed on the front; a flat triple portrait of the Copeland children, whose father was a black clothier in Boston; and a portrait of William Miller, a “spirit effect” work painted from memory after Miller’s death. All are memorable.

Prior’s paintings have been illustrated and written about since the 1920’s and have been included in folk art exhibitions since the 1940’s. Nina Fletcher Little’s article in The Magazine Antiques in 1948 has been the standard reference for years.

For Prior, art was a business. Born on May 16, 1806, in Bath, Maine, to a successful seafaring family, he was the fourth child of Captain Matthew and Esther Bryant Prior. His father was lost at sea in 1815 on a trip to England. In 1824 Prior left Bath to seek his fortune in Portland, Maine. A year later he painted his self-portrait with a palette and brush in hand. The painting may have been used as an advertisement. It is on the catalog cover.

According to Oak, Prior apprenticed himself to Almery Hamblin (1776-1830), Portland’s foremost house painter, and later married Hamblin’s only daughter, Rosamond. He probably worked in the shop of Charles Codman (c. 1800-1842), Portland’s first professional ornamental and decorative painter. Codman apprenticed to John Ritto Penniman, who operated a decorative painting business in Boston, but there are no extant portraits by Codman, so Prior must have learned portrait painting elsewhere. Oak suggests Prior saw portraits by Gilbert Stuart or perhaps studied with Stuart. (He named a son Gilbert Stuart!) She offers no other documentation. Prior’s earliest portrait, painted in 1824, is thought to be Rosamond Clark Hamblin (1809-1849), whom he married in 1828.

His first advertisement appears in the Portland Directory for 1827, but later that year he returned to Bath to go into business for himself as an ornamental painter, advertising “N.B. Old Tea Trays, Waiters &c; re-japanned and ornamented in a very tasty style.” Later that year he advertised himself as a portrait painter. He must have had some success because he married Rosamond Hamblin in April 1828 and painted nearly every prominent family in Bath.

Prior’s 1830 advertisements include his prices: “…for common side Portrait on canvas, 22-26 inches, $10—Guilt frame $3—full length, sitting for $15 full length, erect or leaning, with ornamental background for $25. Children painted full length for $8, when four or six are represented in one picture, reduced price….” In April 1831, Prior advertised the full range of his service and sliding scale, “PERSONS wishing for a flat Picture can have a Likeness without shade or shadow, at quarter price.”

By 1834 Prior had moved his young family back to Portland and is listed in the city directory as a portrait painter. His advertisements spell out the costs, and Prior seemed willing to adjust his style to the needs of his clients.

In 1840 Prior moved his family to Boston along with the families of Nathaniel, Joseph, and Sturtevant Hamblin. They settled together at 12 Chambers Street, an area on Beacon Hill. Nathaniel and Joseph continued house painting work; Sturtevant possibly received some training from Prior and began his brief career as a portrait painter. In 1842 Prior moved to East Boston, a working-class neighborhood suited to his commercial approach. At that time he became involved with the teachings of William Miller (1782-1849), a preacher whose message, known as Adventism, predicted Christ’s Second Coming and the end of the world between March 1843 and March 1844.

Prior painted at least four portraits of William Miller. A lithograph was made of one for a book on Miller published in 1841 by Boston preacher Joshua V. Himes, and another was done for another lithograph in a second version of the same book. Prior-attributed portraits of Miller and his wife, Lucy, circa 1840, may have been drawn from life, but the mesmerizing portrait of Miller wearing a broad-brimmed hat and holding a thick book with the date 1849, given a full page in the catalog, is one of Prior’s “spirit effect portraits” painted from memory. He claimed he could see visions of the departed and capture them on canvas. Prior also painted chronology charts for the Millerite movement that were used as visual aids by Miller and Millerite speakers.

His work with the Millerites also brought Prior into the African-American community. Oak calls his portraits of William and Nancy Lawson, signed and dated 1843, “masterpieces.” William, a clothing dealer and successful businessman, is shown with a lighted cigar. Nancy, stylishly dressed, has her finger in her book and sits before a velvet curtain pulled back to reveal a landscape. They are probably wedding portraits and are among the treasures at the Shelburne Museum.

Oak explains that when Miller’s end of the world prophecy did not occur many defected, but Prior continued to believe in the prophecies. Miller’s major supporter, Himes, redirected his energies toward abolitionism.

Prior concentrated on expanding his painting business. He bought property on Trenton Street in East Boston and built a three-story building he called the “painting garrett.” Dozens of paintings from this period survive, many of them of children shown with their pets or toys. Prior was competing with the recently introduced daguerreotype.

Rosamond Prior and their four-year-old son Joseph died of cholera in 1849, leaving Prior a widower with four children, including a baby about a year old. Prior soon married Hannah Frances Walworth (1818-c. 1910), who was 22 years his junior. Hannah was a spiritualist, believing spirits of the dead can communicate with the living. Prior began to paint his “spirit effect” portraits and marketed them to bereaved parents. (Prior knew loss; not only had he lost his wife, but he had lost six children.) At this time Prior also painted landscapes based on print sources and made portraits on glass of famous Americans. George and Martha Washington after Gilbert Stuart were $15 the pair; he also painted Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln, among others. Over 100 of these portraits on glass survive.

In the 1850’s Prior made at least two trips to Baltimore. Several paintings with the address “272 Monument St. Balto,” one dated 1852 and another 1855, have been discovered, though none are included in the show or catalog.

In the 1860’s Prior, who had no formal education, wrote two books about his experiences as a Millerite. In The King’s Vesture (1862), he reexamines Miller’s prophecies and says  that William Miller fulfilled the Second Coming of Christ. In The Empyrean Canopy (1868), he tells of being directed by Miller to paint the chronological chart and suggests that another “revelation” would come between 1883 and 1926. The book also documents Prior’s abolitionist beliefs, though Oak does not give evidence of his active participation in the movement.

Believing that slavery was a sin against God, Prior promoted the abolitionist cause by depicting African-Americans in a “sensitive and respectful manner,” and leading abolitionists were among his sitters. Not many Prior portraits survive from the 1860’s.

Prior’s last documented portrait was done in 1872. He died of typhoid fever in January 1873 at age 66 and is buried next to his first wife in Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts. An artist’s palette and brushes are carved on his gravestone.

Oak has counted over 1500 likenesses signed by or attributed to Prior and believes it is likely that hundreds remain undiscovered. She illustrates paintings from Prior’s three distinct styles—academic, middling, and flat likenesses, the last “without shade or shadow”—painted in oil on canvas, on cardboard or academy board, or on glass, and a few on paper and on wood and gouache on cardboard. Fifty-one are pictured chronologically in the catalog. Academic and middling portraits are from the waist up and have backgrounds with landscapes, draperies, and/or architectural columns; the sitters wear fashionable clothing and jewelry. The flat likenesses are usually smaller, 16" x 12"; they outnumber the other paintings three to one. Prior signed his paintings in a number of ways, often giving his address. He always used his middle name or initial and often included the sitter’s name and the date, and occasionally the sitter’s age.

There is no evidence that Prior ever gave instruction, but Oak allows that three portrait painters can be called his informal students. The paintings of his brother-in-law Sturtevant J. Hamblin (1816-1884) are flat and formulaic with detail in the costumes, elongated ears and tapering hands, a daub of paint at the chin, and exaggerated lines at the corners of the mouth. An 1851 portrait of Charles Henry, a firefighter, painted with all his accoutrements and a fire in the background beyond a velvet curtain and stone column, is one of Hamblin’s finest works, according to Oak. By 1856 Hamblin had gone into the “gent’s furnishings” business with his brother Joseph, but the 1880 census lists him as portrait painter.

George Hartwell, a house and ornamental painter also influenced by Prior, was related to the Hamblins by marriage. Paintings attributed to him are based on a signed portrait of Jonathan B. Wheeler of Lowell, Massachusetts, done in 1845. Later in life he was an ornamental painter in Lewiston, Maine, painting the best signs in that area. Two-tone lips, rounded eyes, and ornamental details are characteristic of Hartwell’s portraits. Thirty paintings have been attributed to him.

William Kennedy advertised as a portrait painter in New Bedford and Nantucket, Massachusetts, offering a flat style of portraiture. In 1850 he moved to Baltimore and lived on Monument Street near where Prior worked. He moved to Ottawa, Illinois, where in 1880 he is listed as “widowed age 62” with portrait painter as his profession. Kennedy painted half-length figures on canvas and academy board and frequently signed his name and the name of the sitter. His sitters often have props. About 70 portraits have been attributed to him based on the signed portraits of the Bliss family of New Bedford at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

The essay in the catalog by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, “Family and Fortune in Early African American Life and Representation,” explores Prior’s paintings of free blacks in Boston. Samuel Copeland commissioned a triple portrait of his three daughters in 1854 and a separate picture of his young son around 1857. Their mother, an English woman, may have been white; they lived in a white neighborhood, and census records call their children “Mulatto.” Samuel Copeland began trading in used clothing and built his clothing store business to support his growing family over the next half-century. He amassed land and employed white servants. Shaw says the fact that Prior, a white painter, painted portraits of blacks demonstrated social integration in antebellum society, upending the long-held ideas of self-segregation. Without portraits of the elder Copelands to illustrate her point she uses portraits of another mixed-race couple, Philadelphia bootmaker Hiram Charles Montier and his wife, Elizabeth Brown Montier, painted in 1841 by Franklin Street, to make her point about a black middle-class family in a 19th-century city. The Montiers left the portraits behind in Philadelphia when, according to Shaw, they tired of living in the increasingly segregated city and moved to Toronto with their two young sons.

Shaw found only two black portrait artists active during Prior’s time. One was Moses Williams, a profile cutter, trained by Charles Willson Peale to create souvenir silhouettes for visitors to Peale’s museum. She also illustrates a silhouette of Moses Williams attributed to Raphaelle Peale.

The other portrait artist of African descent, also associated with Charles Willson Peale, is Joshua Johnson of Maryland. He may have studied with C.W. Peale or his brother James during the late 1780’s in Baltimore. While most of Johnson’s sitters were of European heritage, between 1805 and 1810 he painted two portraits of black brothers, Abner and Daniel Coker. Both were leaders in the African Methodist movement, and their simple, elegant portraits reflect that mission. Shaw believes that these 19th-century portraits tell the story of free African-Americans in the period leading up to the Civil War, “a time when it was not easy to be black but it was still possible to dream of a better future for one’s family and one’s community, and to have those dreams commemorated in oil on canvas…for future generations.” Prior’s portraits of the Lawsons, the Copeland sisters and their brother, James, and William Whipper (1804-1876), an African-American abolitionist, businessman, temperance activist, and founder of the American Moral Reform Society, did just that.

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

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