The self taught artists who traveled the back roads of early America painted likenesses of all manner of people, but rarely did they depict themselves. I know of only a few self-portraits by American folk artists, and they are all fascinating documents of the appearance and demeanor of the artists. Owing to a successful bid at the recent Leigh Keno auction on May 2, we now have in the Fenimore Art Museum collection one of the best known self portraits still in private hands; that of William Matthew Prior (1806-1873).
Of the many folk portrait painters represented in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, William Matthew Prior is one of the most accomplished and interesting. He began his artistic career in Maine in the 1820s and settled in Boston in the 1830s with an extended group of colleagues and family members. Under his leadership, this group revolutionized folk portraiture. Prior was the first folk artist to institute a price scale, offering to paint likenesses “without shade or shadow” at one-quarter the cost. This innovation made his portraits widely available to the middle class, and allowed him to compete with more accomplished academic painters in the Boston area.
Prior was also an important figure historically, as he became involved in a variety of reform movements. He was an avid abolitionist, and painted more portraits of African Americans than any other artist of his time. Prior was a follower of the religious leader William Miller, and painted several Millerite banners explaining visually the visionary’s unique reading of Biblical prophecy. His wife, it should be noted, advertised herself as a “clairvoyant” and Prior himself claimed to be able to paint portraits of sitters long dead by “spirit effect.”
The Fenimore Art Museum’s American folk art collection includes eight works by Prior that represent his range of interests and styles. We have portraits from the high and low end of his price scale, a portrait of a prominent African American, a portrait thought to be of William Miller himself, and a pair of landscapes. The signed self-portrait represented a rare opportunity to acquire the capstone of this sub-collection.
The painting is signed twice, and dated 1825. It is fascinating to see how accomplished Prior was this early in his career (he was just 19 years old). Prior’s folkier pictures actually come later, when he was trying to appeal to a broad middle class. Our retrospective on Prior, slated for 2012, is going to explore the very blurry line between folk art and academic art in the early 19th century, and the intersection of folk art and the myriad reform and religious movements of the era.
William Matthew Prior stands at the center of this study. And now we have his likeness, painted as only his brush could.