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Artist & Visionary:
William Matthew Prior Revealed
January 24 - May 26, 2013
(above: Publicity graphic for the exhibition. Image courtesy
of American Folk Art Museum)
One of the most prolific
and influential folk painters of the 19th century is being spotlighted in
an exhibition on view at the American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square in New York City, from January 24 through
May 26, 2013. Artist & Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed,
organized by the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY, documents, through
portraits and other paintings, the life and work of a man who is credited
with democratizing portraiture. Closely involved with religious, racial,
and other complex issues of his day, Prior also exhibited astute business
acumen; thus his career as an artist (and painter of more than 1,500 "likenesses")
remains somewhat mysterious to contemporary scholars. Artist & Visionary:
William Matthew Prior Revealed is the first exhibition devoted solely
to this major yet elusive figure in American art. (right: William
Matthew Prior (1806-1873), Probably East Boston, Charles
E. and Octavia C. Adams, 1848, Oil on Cardboard, H: 17 inches
x W: 23 inches. N0378.1961. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown,
New York. Photograph by Richard Walker.)
Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, newly appointed Director of the
American Folk Art Museum, commented: "This exhibition is fascinating
for what it reveals about American art, and even more fascinating for what
it reveals about American history."
An exhibition of drawings and photographs by four 20th
century self-taught artists, titled Women's Studies, and organized
by American Folk Art Museum chief curator Stacy C. Hollander, complements
the Prior portraits.
Highlights of Artist & Visionary: William Matthew
Prior Revealed include the artist's 1843 portraits of William Lawson
and Nancy Lawson, which are considered his masterpieces; Three Sisters
of the Copeland Family (c. 1854); and a haunting and powerful portrait
of William Miller (c. 1849), founder of a millennial religious group whose
beliefs formed the basis of what is now called Adventism. Also included
in the exhibition will be books, advertisements, and other documents Prior
authored, which provide insight into his career as an artist-businessman,
as well as his religious beliefs and social values.
William Matthew Prior: biography and background
William Matthew Prior's paintings have been included in
every major early American folk art survey and catalog and are well known
to curators, collectors, and scholars. Despite this, questions abound: Was
Prior (b. 1806; Bath, ME; d. 1873; East Boston, MA) an academically trained
painter who worked in a folk art
style? Was he a religious and social activist who painted to subsidize his
work in reforming movements? Did he adapt his style of painting for aesthetic
or economic reasons? And did his social conscience or business acumen inspire
portrait-painting that he made affordable for middle-class patrons?
Prior was exposed to one of America's more cosmopolitan
cultures as a result of living in Bath, Maine (then a shipping and trade
capital of the country) and spending time in nearby Portland, which served
as the state's first capital when Maine separated from Massachusetts. There,
as elsewhere in the U.S., members of the country's emerging middle class
sought material goods as indicators of their newly achieved social status.
Ornamental painters, landscape and portrait artists, cabinetmakers, and
other artisans were able to earn income and support families by meeting
and satisfying the demands of home and business owners. (left: William
Matthew Prior (1806-1873), Portland, Maine, The Artist as a Young Man:
Self Portrait, 1825, Oil on canvas, H: 31 1/8 inches x W: 26 15/16
inches. N0008.2010. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York. Photograph
by Richard Walker)
Prior began his life as a painter in the early 1820s, when
he moved to Portland, Maine, and sought out that city's foremost house painter,
Almery Hamblin. (Hamblin would later become his father-in-law.) He also
studied with Charles Codman, the city's first decorative painter, and many
other artists who would affect his career, including, possibly, Gilbert
Stuart, the leading portraitist of the day, with whom he may have studied.
Advertisements from 1827 reveal Prior's "sliding [fee] scale"
that characterized his work throughout his career: "Persons wishing
for a flat Picture can have a Likeness without shade or shadow at quarter
price." (Gilbert Stuart also had a "sliding scale," but
his was based on the size of a work.)
Other advertisements refer to Prior's work as an ornamental
and "fancy" painter.
Examples in the exhibition will include landscapes of Mount
Vernon and Washington's Tomb by Moonlight, and reverse paintings
on glass depicting George and Martha Washington, Daniel Webster, and Abraham
Lincoln -- all symbols of national pride -- which he sold for about $8.00
In 1831 Prior exhibited a portrait at the esteemed Boston
Atheneum. But by 1840 he had settled with his family in East Boston, a working-class
neighborhood of artisans and tradesmen, which suited his more commercial
approach to painting portraits. He no longer tried to compete with academically
trained painters, and sought to avoid the fine art "establishment."
Further, painting was not his only concern.
A religious movement founded by charismatic preacher William
Miller was sweeping the nation and Prior had become an avid follower. He
was commissioned by Miller's close associates to create images of the preacher
and thereby help promote the religious campaign. Miller had studied the
bible exhaustively and devised
a complex theory of the second coming of Jesus Christ; he also predicted
the end of the world, targeting sometime between 1843 and 1844. When the
prophecy proved false, Prior remained faithful to Millerism (despite a schism
in the movement) but turned his attention to expanding his business. (right:
William Matthew Prior, Probably East Boston, Massachusetts, Nancy Lawson,
1843, Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches. Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont.
No photo credit provided)
In East Boston Prior created what he called his "painting
garrett" and from the 1840s through the 1850s, he painted some of his
best-known and most-prized portraits, especially those of children. When
a new medium for "likenesses" began and grew in popularity --
the daguerreotype -- Prior adjusted his style of portraiture, adding color
and more detail. He also began to engage in what he called "spirit-effect"
portraits, which he marketed to parents of deceased children. Prior may
have been drawn to Spiritualism, which professed communication with the
dead. By that time, the artist had lost many family members: his parents,
brother, first wife, and six children. His second wife promoted herself
as a clairvoyant and they may have met through an interest in spirit life.
Racism prevailed in all levels of American society at the
time, even in the North and even in Boston, the epicenter of the abolitionist
movement in New England. Prior's writings of the 1860s reveal his abolitionist
stance and religious conviction that slavery was abhorrent. "Skin
may differ; but affection dwells in white and black just the same. There
is [no] justice in . . . slavery . . . being inconsistent with God's government
and inconsistent with our declaration and constitution as a nation."
(From The Empyrean Canopy, a book of beliefs, opinions, and ideals
written by Prior in 1868.) Prior's signature on his paintings of African
Americans was both an artistic statement and an expression of his moral
William Matthew Prior developed an extended circle of fellow
artists, most of whom were related through marriage. Known as the "Prior-Hamblin
School," Sturtevant J. Hamblin (1816-1884), George G. Hartwell (1815-1901),
and William W. Kennedy (1818-after 1880), among others, all created works
of art that display Prior's influence. William Matthew Prior died of typhoid
fever in January, 1873, at age 66. Though he had ventured only briefly into
the formal art world, Prior's influence on the history of American portraiture
was profound and long lasting.
Introductory wall panel excerpt from the exhibition
- William Matthew Prior (1806-1873) was one of the most
prolific and influential folk painters of the nineteenth century. Best
known today as the figure who democratized American portraiture by creating
a large number of inexpensive likenesses, he was also an activist who responded
to the events of his lifetime-the debate over slavery, new concepts about
religion, and complex cultural issues that significantly altered American
- Since the 1940s, Prior's paintings have been included
in every major American folk art exhibition and catalog and are well known
to curators, collectors, and students. Despite the investigation and documentation
of his life, Prior remained a puzzle. Was he an academically trained painter
who worked in a folk art style? Did he teach others to paint in a manner
similar to his own? Was he a religious and social activist who painted
to subsidize his reform efforts? Was it an artistic decision-or a business
one-that influenced him to create affordable paintings for the middle class?
New, interdisciplinary research presented in "Artist and Visionary:
William Matthew Prior Revealed," the first exhibition devoted solely
to the painter, greatly expands our knowledge about Prior as a man of his
time and enables scholars to assess his role as a major figure in American
Other wall panel texts from the exhibition
- Bath, Maine-Early Days
- William Matthew Prior was born in 1806 in Bath, Maine,
into a family who had been seafarers for decades. The town of Bath, often
called the "city of ships," was unusually cosmopolitan for a
relatively rural outpost. Maritime commerce carried local men to other
American ports and to the West Indies, Europe, and the Far East. Foreign
crews and passengers were frequent visitors, offering the local populace
first-hand accounts of exotic cultures and giving local residents a broad
awareness of world events. Bath was on a scheduled stagecoach run as early
as the 1790s, and, by 1816, the first steamers connected the town to the
larger cities of Portland and Boston. Local, national, and international
news of the day was reported by two weekly newspapers. The city developed
its own social hierarchy, composed of shipbuilders, merchants, lawyers,
and other professionals, supported by artisans, mechanics, and others who
were employed in the maritime trades. By the time Prior left his hometown
in 1824 to seek his fortune, he had been exposed to more of the ways of
the world than many other 18-year-old men.
- Portland, Maine-Training
- When Prior arrived in Portland in the spring of 1824,
he found a major New England seaport and commercial center that supported
a thriving arts community. Maine had become a state in 1820, separating
from Massachusetts, and Portland served as its first capital from 1820
until 1832. Members of an emergent middle class sought material goods that
would be indicative of their newly gained social status. Ornamental painters,
landscape and portrait artists, cabinetmakers, and other artisans found
new opportunities to satisfy the local demand. Early records indicate that
Prior first sought out the city's foremost house painter, Almery Hamblin,
his future father-in-law, whose family had been in the painting trades
for decades. In the shop of Charles Codman, the city's first professional
ornamental and decorative painter, Prior encountered a number of artists
who would affect his career and form the foundation of his life as a painter.
Tradition has suggested that Prior studied with, or at least observed,
the leading portraitist of the day, Gilbert Stuart, in the mid-1820s; the
personal connections that Prior made in Codman's shop may have pointed
him to avenues that would lead him directly to Stuart in Boston. At age
21, in 1827, Prior could legally go into business for himself, and he returned
to his hometown of Bath to begin his career. His advertisements of the
time show the first indication of the "sliding scale" of fees
that would characterize his work for the remainder of his career: "Persons
wishing for a flat Picture can have a Likeness without shade or shadow
at quarter price." Over the next few years, Prior achieved success
in his business, painting almost every notable personage in Bath and the
surrounding area. One of his paintings, of Bath ship owner Abraham Hammatt,
was exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum in 1831-the only time Prior ventured
into the formal art world of the big city.
- Professional Painter
- Perhaps encouraged by his growing acceptance as an artist,
Prior, with his wife and two young children, moved back to Portland about
1832. The Portland Directory for 1834 shows him listed as a portrait painter
with a business in the Exchange Building, a mercantile center in the city's
downtown. The first written recognition of his work appears in a local
magazine in 1835:
- Mr. Prior has been struggling onward in his profession
. . . generally
- [painting] cheap portraits because he . . . was obliged
to work at poor prices
- or not at all. . . . [Within] the last six months
he has raised his prices . . .
- making more than a corresponding improvement in his
portraits. . . .
- Mr. Prior is now constantly employed and his late
pictures bespeak the vast
- improvement which may be made when proper encouragement
- to an artist."
- The portraits that he did in Portland in the 1830s reveal
the business methods that permitted him to remain a painter throughout
his career. His sliding scale for portraits and supplemental work as an
ornamental painter allowed him to offer a complete range of artistic services.
The economic downturn that began in 1837 and lasted several years seems
to have affected him very little; most of his costlier portraits were done
in the 1838-1841 period despite a persistent financial recession. One way
or another, Prior adjusted his style and prices to suit the needs of his
- Possibly in search of new commissions, or as a result
of youthful ambition and the desire to work in a bigger arena, Prior moved
his family to Boston in 1840. About 1842, perhaps sensing competition from
academically trained painters, he moved to East Boston, a working-class
neighborhood composed of tradesmen of every variety. The decision to relocate
appears to have been based on business considerations rather than fine
art aspirations. East Boston's market-oriented atmosphere was better suited
to his commercial approach. After the early 1840s, Prior viewed himself
as an artisan or mechanic and never again made attempts to compete with
the fine art "establishment."
- The End of the World-Millerism
- The painting business was not Prior's only concern in
the early 1840s; a religious movement founded by a charismatic preacher
from upstate New York would attract his attention and change his life forever.
William Miller, from Low Hampton, New York, on the Vermont border, was
a farmer, veteran of the War of 1812, author, and self-educated Baptist
preacher. His teachings became the basis of what is now known as Adventism,
but, in his time, his ideas were considered by some to be the preposterous
ravings of a prophet of doom. Based on his exhaustive Bible studies, Miller
devised a complex theory of the second coming of Jesus Christ and, thence,
the end of the world. In a series of newspaper articles and lectures, Miller
explained his prediction that the world would end sometime between March
1843 and March 1844. His convictions that the millennium was imminent gained
hundreds of converts in New England, and, about 1840, the movement was
transformed into a national phenomenon. Prior became an avid follower of
Miller and, after his move to Boston, became part of the campaign to further
his message. He was commissioned by Miller's close associates to create
images of the preacher and a descriptive chart that were used extensively
in books and lectures. When the end of the world did not occur, the group
divided sharply in their allegiance to Miller; some, such as Prior, continued
to believe in his prophecies, even with an error in dating; others denounced
him as a fraud, while still others returned to their previous religions.
- 36 Trenton Street, East Boston-The Painting Garret
- After 1844, Prior concentrated on expanding his painting
business. He built a home at 36 Trenton Street, East Boston, which included
a studio he called "the painting garret," where he created some
of his best-known and most-loved likenesses. Children's portraits had always
been part of his repertoire, but the mid-1840s to the mid-1850s saw a dramatic
increase in these pictures. One reason for the abundance of these colorful,
highly detailed portraits-numbering at least twice as many as his adult
likenesses-was undoubtedly based on another business decision: he had to
adjust his style to compete with the new and immensely popular medium of
daguerreotypy, the first practical photographic process.
- Extensive research has found no documentary evidence
of Prior's active participation in any facet of the Abolitionist movement,
but, based on his writings as seen in two books, The King's Vesture
(1862) and The Empyrean Canopy (1868), his sympathies clearly
were with them. In the latter book, written after the Civil War, his feelings
- SLAVERY AND DEATH
- Fleecy locks and dark complexion cannot help, what
nature claim. Skin
- may differ, but affection dwells in white and black
just the same. There
- is [no] justice in . . . slavery . . . being inconsistent
with God's government
- and inconsistent with our declaration and constitution
as a nation.
- It appears that he abhorred slavery because of his religious
beliefs and, like other Evangelical reformers and the Quakers, felt that
slavery was a sin against God. Although Boston was the epicenter of Abolitionism
in New England, racism still existed in all levels of society, even in
the North; Prior's signature on his paintings of African Americans was
both an artistic statement and an expression of the painter's moral values.
- For William Matthew Prior, art was a business. Unlike
many of his contemporaries, who had to supplement their income by adopting
other occupations, Prior remained a painter throughout his career. The
sliding scale he developed was not entirely new -- Gilbert Stuart adjusted
his prices based on size -- but it was unique among artists of his kind.
Early advertisements show his fees:
- "Prices, for common size portrait on canvas,
22 x 26 inches, $10. - full length, erect, or leaning with ornamental background
$25. Children painted full length for $8. - when four or six are represented
in one picture, reduced price. Persons wishing for a flat picture can have
a likeness without shade or shadow, at quarter price."
- His pragmatic, businesslike approach to portrait making
is evident in the detailed descriptions of the values on some of the paintings.
- Spiritualism, a belief system that held that spirits
of the dead can communicate with the living, became popular about 1850.
Spirit mediums and clairvoyants were humans who allegedly had the ability
to receive messages from the spirit world and predict future events. Many
reform-minded participants were attracted to spiritualism because they
felt that the established churches did little to advance the cause of women's
rights or to fight slavery.
- About 1850, Prior began to paint what he called "spirit
effect" portraits and marketed them particularly to bereaved parents;
he claimed he could see visions of departed loved ones and capture them
on canvas. This may have been a slightly dubious business practice, but
it is important to remember that he may have had a sincere longing for
a connection to his own lost loved ones: parents, older brother, first
wife, and six of his own children.
- Hannah Frances Walworth, Prior's second wife, was a practicing
clairvoyant in Boston, and they may have met through a mutual interest
- Fancy, Sign & Ornamental Painting
- As an adjunct to his portrait work, mainly in the 1850s,
Prior created landscapes and historical or imaginary scenes based on or
inspired by contemporary prints, such as renditions of Rochester Castle
in Kent, England. Idealized river views, many of which he called "Moonlit
Landscape," and genre scenes, some that showed skaters in stylized
villages, may have been based on seventeenth-century Dutch Master paintings
that were popular in Boston collections at the time.
- Tradition indicates that he gained entrance to the Boston
Athenaeum to copy Gilbert Stuart's painting of George Washington, which
he then replicated on glass panels. Martha Washington, Daniel Webster,
and Abraham Lincoln were also subjects for the paintings on glass, which
he sold for about $8.00 a piece. "Fancy pieces" were purely decorative,
and some reflect his early work as a sign painter.
- Prior and His Circle
- Based on stylistic similarities and geographic proximity,
it is thought that several artists may have been influenced by Prior. There
is no documentary evidence, however, to prove that Prior ever gave formal
painting lessons in Maine, Massachusetts, or elsewhere. Three artists produced
work that is stylistically influenced by Prior, documented by signatures
or inscriptions, and can be confidently evaluated as Prior's informal students.
- The best-known follower of Prior is Sturtevant J. Hamblin
(1816-1884), the younger brother of his first wife. Like his father, grandfather,
and brothers, Hamblin was trained as a house painter and decorator. The
Priors and Hamblins lived together-or in close proximity-in Portland, Boston,
and East Boston, and there is little doubt that Hamblin learned his portrait
painting skills from Prior.
- Another artist who was influenced by Prior was George
G. Hartwell (1815-1901), who was related to the Hamblins by marriage. Born
in Lewiston, Maine, Hartwell, like the Hamblins, was a house and ornamental
painter and it appears that portraiture was a small part of his business.
- William W. Kennedy (1818-after 1880), is an artist whose
portraits share many characteristics with those of Prior. Despite years
of investigation, little is known about his life. He advertised as a portrait
painter in New Bedford and Nantucket, Massachusetts, indicating that he
offered a "flat style" of portraiture similar to Prior's. He
was living in Baltimore at the time that Prior made several trips to that
city in the 1850s.
- Other artists who have been traditionally associated
with the "Prior-Hamblin" circle include E.W. Blake (1824-1891)
and Jacob Bailey Moore (1815-1893), but definitive identification remains
- William Matthew Prior died of typhoid fever at age 66
in January 1873 and is buried with his first wife in Woodlawn Cemetery,
Everett, Massachusetts. On his gravestone are carved an artist's palette
and brushes. An obituary in his hometown paper, the Bath Daily Times,
barely mentions his passing, stating only: "Died in East Boston, Mr.
William M. Prior, portrait painter, formerly of this city, aged 66."
It was little notice for a man who created more than 1,500 likenesses and
democratized American portraiture.
Editor's note: Resource Library readers may also
For further biographical information on selected artists
cited in this article please see America's
Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional
source by visiting the sub-index page for the American
Folk Art Museum in Resource Library.
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