William Matthew Prior

 

Prior s an intriguing figure among nineteenth-century painters, both for his business practices and for his personal beliefs. He was a fervent follower of the Adventist leader William Miller, who predicted that the Second Coming of Christ would occur between 1843 and 1844. Prior was also an adherent of spiritualism and offered portraitsafter the death of the subject, painted from what he termed “spirit effect.” He executed some of the nineteenth century’s most respectful portraits of free men andwomen of color, suggesting that he held abolitionist leanings or beliefs. Prior worked primarily between the 1820s and 1860s, and his professional career exemplifies ashift in painted portraiture from luxury items to mass consumer goods. He successfully rode the wave and subsequent decline of popular demand for such commissions, producing large numbers of reductive portraits in oil or gouache on academy board that cost very little, as well as near-academic canvases that displayed his technicalskills and represented a greater expenditure of time and money. Prior was born into a seafaring family in Bath, Maine. His father, Matthew, and brother, Barker, were both lost at sea in 1815, an event memorialized in a watercolor mourning piece by his sister, Jane Otis Prior (1803–?). Prior apparently did not follow the maritimetrades; instead, he was trained as an ornamental painter. Advertisements in the Maine Inquirer from 1827 through 1831 detail the types of projects he undertook during this period, from re-japanning tea trays and tin waiters in a “tasty style” to restoring oil portraits. By 1823, however, he was painting portraits. His self-portrait of 1825 shows a confidence and academic ambition that belie his young age but support the idea that he may have received some training about 1824 in the studio of theartist Charles Codman (1800–1842) in Portland. He was an artist of aspirations who obtained permission from the Boston Athenaeum to copy a famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828). In 1828, Prior married Rosamond Hamblin; that alliance united him with a large family of artisans whose fortunesand movements remained tied to his own for decades to come.The earliest indication that Prior would adapt his painting style to the means of a client was contained in his advertisement of February 28, 1828, which stated: “Sideviews and profiles of children at reduced prices.” A few years later, he began marketing different styles of portraiture depending on the client’s wishes or ability to pay.Oil portraits in an academic manner with facial modeling ranged from $10 to $25. He advertised in the Maine Inquirer in 1831: “Persons wishing for a flat picture canhave a likeness without shade or shadow at one quarter price.” The label attached to the back of Prior’s portrait Nat Todd, painted about 1848, demonstrates theextent to which he would ultimately take this approach: “PORTRAITS /PAINTED IN THIS STYLE!/Done in about an hour’s sitting./Price 2,92, including Frame,Glass, & c./ Please call at Trenton Street/East Boston/WM. M. PRIOR.” Just a few years earlier, William W.Kennedy (1818-after 1870) had offered similar portraitsin New Bedford as “a new style,” perhaps suggesting a broader shift in taste as the daguerreotype (invented in 1839) became a widely available means of obtaining aninexpensive photographic likeness. This workshop or standardized approach allowed effective portraits to be painted predictably and expeditiously but contributed tocontemporary criticism that such “staring likenesses” captured only the outward form, not the inner spirit.Another consequence has been the present-day confusion in trying to distinguish among unsigned portraits produced by William Matthew Prior, his inlaws SturtevantJ.Hamblin (active 1837–1856) and George G.Hartwell (1815–1901), and William W. Kennedy. The works by these interrelated artists are now considered under thegeneral appellation Prior-Hamblin School. Among these, Prior’s paintings are distinctive for their consistently painterly yet crisp style, quick spontaneous brushwork,rich saturated colors, and freshness. Emblematic of Prior’s approach is his 1853 portrait of The Ward Children in which the two young subjects are situated against adark, flat background, allowing their faces, hands, and details of costume to stand out. While paintings such as The Ward Children, Baby in Blue (c. 1845, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and Isaac Josiah and William Mulford Hand (c. 1845, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) share a similar taste for smooth, finished likenesses, in other works, Prior was quick to adapthis style to suit his subject and his client. Prior may have adapted some of the techniques of ornamental painting, as many passages are painted wet-on-wet and exhibit brush strokes like those used to decorate tinware.Sometime between 1831 and 1834, Prior moved with his growing family to Portland, Maine, where he began a pattern of living with or near his Hamblin relatives.By 1841, the Prior and Hamblin families had moved together to Boston, where they lived in the home of Nathaniel Hamblin. In 1846, however, the Priors and their large family were established in their own home at 36 Trenton Street, which Prior dubbed the “Painting Garret.” The number of portraits that have survived from this period attest to Prior’s popularity despite the advent of photography, but he continued to travel throughout New England and as far south as Baltimore in search of commissions, sometimes accompanied by one of his sons. It was during the 1850s that Prior began to paint “fancy” pictures of Mount Vernon and Washington’s tomb,ice skaters on ponds, romantic landscapes, and moonlit scenes. He also applied his earlier experience of reverse painting on glass clock dials to create portraits in thistechnique of George and Martha Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and other historical figures.As early as 1838, Prior had offered posthumous portraiture, when he painted Arobine Sewall after death from “cast relief.” During the 1850s and 1860s hecontinued and even advertised this practice, but now by “spirit effect,” a gift he claimed he had received after his conversion to Millerism. In 1840, Prior probably sawWilliam Miller preach during a major convocation in Casco, Maine. He and his brother-in-law Joseph G.Hamblin became zealous converts, and Prior wrote at leasttwo, possibly three, books on the subject, even after Miller’s predictions failed to eventuate. In the first of these books Prior mentions painting a chronological chartillustrating Miller’s calculations, and he is thought to be the artist of the brooding portrait of Miller painted about 1850. In 1865 Prior used his visionary ability to paint his own deceased brother, Barker.Throughout his career Prior ground his own pigments, prepared his own canvases, and even made many of his own frames. Advertisements as well as informativelabels and inscriptions on the reverse side of paintings shed light on his marketing practices as they developed. His activities indicate an active, engaged life; and hisentrepreneurial approach helped to democratize the art of portrait painting, bringing likenesses, both staring and otherwise, within reach of all those who desired them.