William Matthew Prior, a self-taught New England artist, worked in two styles, one primitive and flat and the other more sophisticated—and more expensive for the client. In 1831 he advertised in the Maine Inquirer: “Persons wishing for a flat picture can have a likeness without shadow or...
William Matthew Prior, a self-taught New England artist, worked in two styles, one primitive and flat and the other more sophisticated—and more expensive for the client. In 1831 he advertised in the Maine Inquirer: “Persons wishing for a flat picture can have a likeness without shadow or shade for one-quarter the price.” A flat likeness cost $2.92, with frame and glass. William Allen is an example of Prior’s more complex style, and the Allen family likely paid the artist a sizeable fee for this charming portrait of their two-year-old son. The landscape surrounding William Allen refers to the family’s large estate in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Prior was also inspired by the eighteenth-century British convention of depicting children and family groups in outdoor wooded settings. He was familiar with this convention either from widely circulated prints after paintings by Reynolds and Gainsborough or from prints after the work of American artist Thomas Sully [16.104], who had studied in London and painted children in similar landscape settings. The allusion to British aristocratic portraiture must have flattered the Allen family, who had amassed a fortune from the manufacture of decorative iron. The greyhounds—one of which sports a gilt buckled collar—were family pets and appeared on the family crest. The flowers, symbolic of innocence and sweetness, and the straw hat, stylish summer headwear for little boys, add colorful notes to the portrayal. This text was adapted from Carol Troyen and Janet L. Comey, Amerikakaigakodomo no sekai [Children in American art], exh. cat. (Nagoya, Japan: Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2007).
Reverse, before relining: W. Allen./By Wm. M. Prior/1843
1843, Samuel Parker Allen (born 1813), Cambridgeport, Mass.; by descent to his son, James Morse Allen (born 1848), Cambridge, Mass.; by descent to his daughter, Miss Greta Allen (born 1881), Dorchester, Mass.; 1946, consigned to Bessie Howard; 1946, sold by Bessie Howard to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1948, bequest of Martha C. (Mrs. Maxim) Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 3, 1948)
Bequest of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865