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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 apiece.

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 values.

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 society.
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 art.


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 is extended
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 clients.
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 are apparent:
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 in spiritualism.
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 elusive.
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.


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