In the first half of the 19C, before photography made it possible to have inexpensive true likenesses, portrait painters worked in most urban cities & often traveled from small town to small town, memorializing their clients for future generations.
Born in Bath, Maine, William Matthew Prior became an itinerant portrait & landscape painter who also painted on glass. By 1824, he had traveled to Portland, Maine, and lived there from 1831 to 1840. Prior was a most practical portrait painter, he would adjust his fees in accordance with what his sitters could pay. He advertised in the "Maine Inquirer" in 1831 that "persons who wished a flat picture can have a likeness without shade or shadow at one-quarter price"
William Matthew Prior (American artist, 1806-1873) Mrs. Nancy Lawson, wife of a Boston clothing merchant. 1843 (Prior-Hamblin School)
His son, Matthew Prior gave the following account of his father:
"My father--yes--my father was thought a great deal of. He used to start out early in the he morning and always found plenty of work to do. It seems he was an independent young man, full of ambition, and he worked his way up in the scales so fast that in his early twenties he painted a portrait of A. Hammett, Esp. It was exhibited at the Boston Anthenæum in 1831. When he was a small boy he painted the portrait of a neighbor on the barn door, which created quite an excitement in the village. yes, he heard considerable about it. Young as he was, he made up his mind then and there to become an artist, and when he was old enough he took up the trade of the itinerant portrait painter, walking along the dusty roads with a pack on his back...
"Father was always an itinerant portrait painter, but now he acquired a horse and wagon, and accompanied by his wife he would start out with the back of the wagon full of canvases, and in this way he journeyed far afield throughout this state and other states as well, where, to this day, you may run across his paintings. When his two children grew out of babyhood, he carried them along with him, which made quite a family party, so it must have been quite a circumstance to put them all up for the purpose of getting a portrait painted. it was the habit of the day to give these artists food and lodging, which was included in the price of the portrait."
Prior executed some of the 19th century’s most respectful portraits of free men & women of color, suggesting that he may have held abolitionist sympathies or beliefs, which was fairly common in New England. Prior's portrayal of free blacks elicit the same seriousness & respect as his white clients. Prior avoids the caricature sometimes seen in others depictions of African-Americans.
William Matthew Prior (American artist, 1806-1873) Three Sisters of the Copeland Family 1854 (Prior-Hamblin School)
Prior was born into a seafaring family in Bath, Maine. His father, Matthew, & brother, Barker, were both lost at sea in 1815. Prior decided not to go to sea & trained to become 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 primarily painting portraits.
William Matthew Prior (American artist, 1806-1873) The Burnish Sisters 1854 (Prior-Hamblin School)
In an effort to solicit more business, Prior put this notice in his local Portland newspaper on February 28, 1828, which declared: "Portrait painter, Wm. M. Prior, offers his services to the public. Those who wish for a likeness at a reasonable price are invited to call soon. Side views and profiles of children at reduced prices." Apparently people took him up on his offer. His entrepreneurial approach made painted portraits available to a wider range of clients.
William Matthew Prior (American artist, 1806-1873) or Sturtevant J. Hamblin (American artist, 1817-1884) Mary Cary and Susan Elizabeth Johnson, 1848 (Prior-Hamblin School)
A label attached to the back of Prior’s portrait Nat Todd, painted about 1848, announced: “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.”
In 1828, Prior married Rosamond Clark Hamblin uniting him with a large family of painters & glaizers with whose fortunes & movements he became intetwined. Today there is often confusion in trying to distinguish among unsigned portraits produced by William Matthew Prior, his in-laws Sturtevant J. Hamblin (active 1837–1856); George G.Hartwell (1815–1901); & William W. Kennedy. E. W. Blake was also associated with this group. The works by these interrelated artists are sometimes refered to as the Prior-Hamblin School. Sometime between 1831 & 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.
William Matthew Prior (American artist, 1806-1873) Two Children with Dog Minny on a Ribbon 1840 (Prior-Hamblin School)
By 1846, the Priors & their large family were living in their own home at 36 Trenton Street, which Prior dubbed the “Painting Garret.” The number of portraits surviving from this period attest to Prior’s popularity despite the advent of photography. He continued to travel throughout New England and as far south as Baltimore, Maryland, in search of commissions, sometimes accompanied by his sons.
William Matthew Prior (American artist, 1806-1873) Issac Josiah and William Mulford Hand (Prior-Hamblin School)
As early as 1838, Prior had offered posthumous portraiture, but during the 1850s & 1860s he advertised this practice, but now using the “spirit effect,” a gift he claimed he had received after his conversion to Millerism. In 1840, Prior probably saw Adventist leader William Miller preach during a major convocation in Casco, Maine. He & his brother-in-law Joseph G. Hamblin became zealous converts; and Prior wrote at least two books on Miller, even after the evangelist's predictions failed to occur. In his books, Prior explained, that his visionary beliefs enabled him to paint posthumous portraits “by spirit effect.”
William Matthew Prior (American artist, 1806-1873) (Prior-Hamblin School)
During the 1850s that Prior began to paint “fancy” pictures of Mount Vernon & Washington’s tomb, ice skaters on ponds, romantic landscapes, & moonlit scenes. He also applied his earlier experience of reverse painting on glass clock dials to create portraits in verre églomisé of George & Martha Washington, Abraham Lincoln, a& other historical figures.
The paintings I am posting here have been attributed to William Matthew Prior but may have been painted by some of his in-laws or others. I am surely not positive. Anyway, just relax and enjoy.
William Matthew Prior (American artist, 1806-1873) (Prior-Hamblin School)
William Matthew Prior (American artist, 1806-1873) John Thayer 1848 (Prior-Hamblin School)
William Matthew Prior (American artist, 1806-1873) Miss Jones with Her Dog and Cat 1846 (Prior-Hamblin School)
Hickman, Madelia & Pratt, Wayne, The 'Celebrated' William Matthew Prior (1806-1873), Antiques & Fine Art Magazine
Krashes, David, Understanding the Prior-Hamblen School of Artists A Little Bit Better, Maine Antique Digest, July, 2011
Rumford, Beatrix T. American Folk Portraits Paintings and Drawings from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center. New York Graphic Society, 1981. 176-81.
Sears, Clara Endicott, Some American Primitives: A Study of New England Faces and Folk Portraits, Kennikat Press, Inc., Port Washington, N.Y., 1941. 31-50.