William John Wilgus was born in Troy, New York, on 31 January 1819, son of Alfred W. Wilgus, a Buffalo bookseller and print dealer. The family moved from Troy to Albany during William's infancy, then to Buffalo about 1828. William showed an early talent for painting and studied first under his uncle, Nathaniel Wilgus, in Buffalo. He was then sent to New York City to study with Samuel F.B. Morse from 1834 to 1837. In 1835 Wilgus received favorable notice for his painting Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horsemen that was shown at the National Academy of Design. The National Gallery's painting with the same title (1971.83.21) appears to be based directly on this work.
Wilgus painted a few landscapes, but was known primarily as a portraitist and depicter of Indians of western New York. In 1840 he was made an honorary member of the National Academy of Design. He lived in New York City as a portrait painter around 1841-1842 and 1845-1847. Because of delicate health, much of Wilgus' adult life was passed in a southern climate, and after 1846 his winters were regularly spent in Savannah, Mobile, or Cuba. He died in Buffalo of consumption in 1853. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Sellstedt, Lars G. Life and Works of William John Wilgus. Buffalo, 1912.
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: 395-397.