William Matthew Prior


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Painter. Primarily a portraitist, he also produced some landscapes. As he openly advertised, Prior worked in two distinguishable portrait styles. Only with the more expensive did he provide three-dimensional modeling, especially for facial features. Even his “flat picture(s) …without shade or shadow at one-quarter price” display strong pattern, careful design, and an aptitude for catching individual features, but the more finished works better measure his artistry. Often including a fairly elaborate setting, these demonstrate his desire to adapt sophisticated stylistic and iconographic models when he could find willing clients. A religious enthusiast, in the 1840s Prior developed the unusual specialty of painting dead children whose likenesses he received in communication with the spirit world. In the 1860s he published two books on religious subjects. When daguerreotypes began to limit his market in mid-century, he achieved popular success with reverse paintings on glass of famous Americans, particularly George Washington. Mostly also dating from his later years, his romantic landscapes, often based on prints, include winter scenes, moonlit visions, and views of Washington's home or tomb. Born in Bath, Maine, he apparently remained self-taught as an artist. He continued throughout much of his career to supplement his income with artisanal work, such as sign painting and ornamental decoration, which he first undertook as a teenager. By 1824 he was painting portraits in Portland, where he settled in the early 1830s. There he worked along with his wife's brothers. Three (until one died in 1839) apparently limited themselves to applied art, but Sturtevant J. Hamblin (or Hamblen) (1817–84) developed into an independent portrait painter, active from 1837 until 1856, and became sufficiently skilled that some of his work from the 1840s and early 1850s may be confused with Prior's. In 1840 the entire extended family moved permanently to Boston, although Prior continued his established practice of also working itinerantly. These trips took him throughout New England and as far south as Baltimore, but he stayed primarily in Massachusetts and Maine.

Subjects: Art.

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