Making a Long-Gone World Alive

Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed

an exhibition at the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, May 26–December 31, 2012; and the American Folk Art Museum, New York City, January 24–May 26, 2013
Catalog of the exhibition by Jacquelyn Oak and Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw
Fenimore Art Museum, 64 pp., $29.95 (paper)


It is sometimes said that, before the Civil War, American artists usually showed African-Americans in a trivializing and condescending manner. The thought is that, in antebellum days, American painters—and this would be largely painters working out of the Northeast, where our art world was at the time—saw black people as types at best, and too often as mindless figures, even puppets.

A good look at the art of the time jars this opinion, and the current exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum of the mid-nineteenth-century portraitist William Matthew Prior forms a quietly decisive refutation of the idea. Prior (1806–1873) was white, and of the 1,500 or so portraits he made in his native Maine and later in the Boston area, less than a dozen are pictures of African-American, or mixed-race, adults and children. Five are in the current show, the first retrospective this artist has been given, and they turn out to be among the most engaging works on view. A few of them, especially an 1843 portrait of William Lawson, a black Boston clothing merchant, struck me as a good bit more than that.

Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont
William Matthew Prior: Nancy Lawson, 30 x 25 inches, 1843

This straightforward portrait of a man seen from roughly the waist up, with a lit cigar in his hand, is acknowledged, in the exhibition’s accompanying catalog, to be one of Prior’s masterpieces. But Prior is not one of the better-known nineteenth-century American artists, and the portrait of Lawson, which I believe to be a classic of its era, and perhaps of our art in general, probably isn’t familiar even to people who know the painting of the time. (The picture’s relative unfamiliarity may be due to the fact that, along with the portrait of the sitter’s wife, Nancy Lawson, which is also in the current show, it is owned by the Shelburne Museum, in Shelburne, Vermont, a somewhat inaccessible collection.)

William Lawson planted me before it in part because it is plainly exciting to discover a picture from the 1840s of a black American who faces us, as Lawson does, with a demeanor that seems at once friendly, self-assured, worldly, and quizzical. But it isn’t only one’s social conscience that is stirred. Prior’s artistry is understatedly superb. No reproduction of the picture that I have seen remotely conveys the glowing overall surface polish of the work.

The painting’s few colors, including the sitter’s tan-brown face, the brown background, the man’s black jacket and sharply delineated white collar—and the glowing orange tip of his cigar, at the very bottom of the picture, with its plume of smoke—sumptuously coalesce. The painting presents an overall darkness from which the cigar’s little fire, Lawson’s brilliant white collar, and the man’s wonderfully tangible mind and spirit all spring forth. (With Nancy Lawson, neither its color scheme nor…

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