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William Matthew Prior

William Matthew Prior: :Portrait of Capt. John J. Sullivan, a Boston Pilot

:Portrait of Capt. John J. Sullivan, a Boston Pilot

American

1805 - 1873

Although William Matthew Prior would go on to become one of the most prominent folk art painters of the 19th Century, he has no record of any formal training. He was born in 1806 in Bath, Maine, the son of a shipmaster, and by age 18 he was traveling and painting professionally throughout New England.

In 1828 Prior met and married his wife Rosamund Clark Hamblin, who came from a long line of painters. The newlyweds lived in Portland, Maine with Rosamund’s brothers for some time before the group moved to Boston around 1840. They formed the nucleus of what is now known as the Prior-Hamblin School, a group of artists who painted in such a similar aesthetic their unsigned works are virtually indistinguishable from each other.

Although capable of more academic portraiture, Prior, as with the Prior-Hamblin School, is best known for primitive "flat" works that are linear in perspective with very little shading. He would concentrate on facial features, often giving them a “cherubic” quality, but rendered little detail on hands, feet and clothing. Prior typically staged his portraits with soft, atmospheric backgrounds and accessories that indicated the sitter’s gender or interests. His most popular works were vibrant full-length portraits of children.

Prior employed a unique business model of advertising less expensive “flat picture” portraits as an alternative to pricier realistic depictions. He was thus able to market his work to a diverse range of clients, particularly the burgeoning merchant class. Through his involvement with Millerism (early Adventism), or perhaps because he was an abolitionist, Prior also painted some of the 19th Century’s most respectful portraits of African Americans. 

He later set up a studio in East Boston, where he lived until his death in 1873. “The Painting Garrett”, as Prior called it, served as the hub of his business, but by 1850, his work as a portraitist started to wane as early photography became more popular. Later in his career, Prior did sign painting and reverse painting on glass and clocks, as well as landscapes and historical scenes. It is an interesting footnote that while Prior spent his entire life on the New England coast, he is not known to have painted any maritime scenes.

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