William Matthew Prior, the second son of Matthew Prior and Sarah Bryant Prior of Duxbury, Massachusetts, was born in Bath, Maine, in 1806. His earliest portrait is inscribed in the artist's hand, W. M. Prior's first portrait 1823. An inscription on an 1824 portrait (privately owned in 1992), W. M. Prior, Painter / Formerly of Bath / 1824 / 3 piece on cloth / Painted in C. Codman's Shop / Portland, Maine, offers a clue to the artist's early training. Prior may have served an apprenticeship with Charles Codman (1800-1842), a Portland painter of signs, portraits, land- and seascapes, or he simply may have used his shop for studio space.
Advertisements in the Maine Inquirer in 1827 and 1828 indicate that Prior did oil painting, bronzing, oil gilding, varnishing, and and drawings of machinery at this time. The first mention of him as a limner occurs in 1828. That Prior restored paintings as well is attested by an inscription on the reverse of an eighteenth-century portrait belonging to the Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Massachusetts, which reads, Mrs. Ford Boston 1740 Repared [sic] by W. M. Prior Bath, Maine.
In 1829 the artist married Rosamond Clark Hamblin, a member of a family of painters. The Priors moved to Portland sometime between 1831 and 1834, and to Boston in 1839, where at various times they shared residences with several members of the Hamblin family. While the other Hamblin brothers earned a living principally by house and sign painting, Sturtevant J. Hamblin joined his brother-in-law as a portrait painter. In about 1846 Prior moved to his "Painting Garret," the name he gave to the 36 Trenton Street address in East Boston where he lived and worked until his death in 1873. He traveled as far south as Baltimore in search of commissions; however, most of his painting trips were concentrated in New England.
William Prior prepared his own canvases, ground his own paints, and with the help of his sons made some of his own frames. The artist produced some landscapes, but because of public demand, he was primarily a portrait painter. Prior also painted a number of portraits on glass. He recorded many well-known figures in this medium, including George Washington, copied from Gilbert Stuart's Athenaeum portrait. Although it is not evident in his style, Prior admired Stuart and named a son after him.
William Prior's work is perhaps best known for its stylistic variance. His works range from near academic compositions to naive portraits. Prior explained this in an advertisement, stating: "Persons wishing for a flat picture can have a likeness without shade or shadow at one-quarter price." It is clear that the artist priced his paintings according to their complexity and academic finish.
In addition to being a painter, Prior was a devout follower of the Advent Movement and even named one of his daughters Balona Miller after William Miller, the movement's founder. The artist also wrote two books in support of Miller, The King's Vesture in 1862 and The Empyrean Canopy in 1868. He later became a spiritualist and claimed he could see children who had died and could execute their portraits. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Little, Nina Fletcher. "William M. Prior, Traveling Artist, and his In-Laws, the Painting Hamblens." Antiques 53 (January 1948): 44-48.
Lipman and Winchester 1950, 80-89.
Johnston, Patricia. "William Matthew Prior, Itinerant Portrait Painter." Early American Life (June 1979): 20-23, 66.
Rumford 1981, 176-182.
Chotner, Deborah, with contributions by Julie Aronson, Sarah D. Cash, and Laurie Weitzenkorn. American Naive Paintings. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 296-297.