Paul S. D’Ambrosio, Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers’ Museum
The Artist as a Young Man: Self-Portrait by William Matthew Prior, 1825; on verso: “Prior, W M” and “W. Matthew Prior/Painter/Portland, Maine/October 12, 1825.” Portland, Maine. Oil on canvas. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York.
Three Sisters of the Copeland Family by William Matthew Prior, ca. 1854; on verso: “W M Prior/36 Trenton Street 9third section) East Boston/Sept 1854.” East Boston, Massachusetts. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of Martha C. Karolik and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865.
Paintings by William Matthew Prior (1806–1873) have been an integral component of every major American folk art exhibit and publication since the 1940s, and curators and collectors know Prior’s work well. Dr. D’Ambrosio’s lecture will present new, interdisciplinary research presented in his exhibition, “Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed,” the first show devoted solely to the painter.
Despite previous investigation and documentation of William Matthew Prior’s life, key questions concerning his role as a folk artist remained for Paul D’Ambrosio to puzzle. Was Prior an academically trained painter who worked in a folk art style? Was he a religious and social activist who painted to subsidize his reform efforts? Did he make an artistic decision - or was it business acumen - to create affordable paintings that democratized American portraiture? Paul D’Ambrosio’s project has greatly expanded our knowledge about Prior as an innovative painter of great influence and a reform-minded visionary.
Art was a business, a successful business, for William Matthew Prior. Unlike many of his folk artist contemporaries who supplemented their incomes by practicing other occupations, painting seasonally, Prior remained a painter who adapted his practice to respond to the onslaught of competition from daguerreotypes. Unlike many of his folk art contemporaries, Prior was also urban-based, located first in Portland, Maine and then Boston.
Prior advertised his sliding price scale for likenesses according to size and degree of detail and finish: “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.” He effectively advertised academically-acceptable portraits to flat, stylized faces. Art collided with commerce and the adage that “you get what you pay for” was never truer than for the clientele of William Matthew Prior.
Prior’s stylistic techniques and innovative merchandising also influenced a group of folk artists who have been collectively called the Prior-Hamblin school. Among those artists were relatives Sturtevant Hamblin and George Hartwell, as well as William Kennedy. Prior’s pragmatic, business-like approach, and his influence on other artists, made portraits readily available to the middle class, and resulted in — perhaps unwittingly — democratization of American art. Prior’s clientele also included African-Americans, perhaps related to his abolitionist leanings.
The painting business, however, was not Prior’s only concern in the 1840s; a religious movement founded by a charismatic preacher from upstate New York attracted his attention and changed his life forever. That self-educated Baptist preacher, William Miller, was a farmer from Hampton, New York, veteran of the War of 1812 and an author, who believed the second coming of Jesus Christ would soon herald the end of the world.
Miller’s conviction that the millennium was imminent gained hundreds converts in New England - including William Matthew Prior — and, about 1840, the movement became a national phenomenon. Miller’s close associates commissioned Prior to create images of the preacher and a descriptive chart which were used extensively in promotional books and lectures. When the world did not end as predicted, some adherents, such as Prior, continued to believe in Miller’s prophecies, albeit with an error in dating.
Paul D’Ambrosio has risen from assistant curator to president and chief executive officer of the New York State Historical Association and the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York (“SUNY”) College at Cortland, a master’s degree in museum studies from the Cooperstown graduate program at SUNY-Oneonta and a doctorate in American studies from Boston University.
Dr. D’Ambrosio’s publications include Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed (2012); The World of John Brewster Jr., 1766–1854 (2006); Ralph Fasanella’s America (2001), the subject of his doctoral dissertation; and Folk Art’s Many Faces: Portraits in the New York State Historical Association (1987) with Charlotte Emans. He has also contributed essays to both volumes of Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana (2007, 2011).