A GROUP OF FAMILY PORTRAITS
oil on cardboard
14 x 10 in. each
Artist or Maker
WILLIAM MATTHEW PRIOR (1806-1873), CIRCA 1840
"Small Folk: A Celebration of Childhood in America", New York: The Museum of American Folk Art and the New York Historical Society, 1980-1981.
Sandra Brant and Elissa Cullman, Small Folk: A Celebration of Childhood in America, (New York, 1980), p. 30, fig. 40.
Jerome W. Blum, Lisbon, Connecticut, 1975
Sotheby's New York, The American Folk Art Collection of Frank and Karen Miele, January 28, 1984, lot 8
Skinner's Auctions, Boston, October, 1989, lot 282
Wayne Pratt Antiques, Woodbury, CT
Request more information
This group of three children, representing a varied range of ages, demonstrates William Matthew Prior's success in capturing the sweetness and innocence of childhood. Prior followed a successful format in which he included with his subjects an accessory or object that identified their gender or their individual interests. In this young trio, the older girl holds a small bouquet of flowers, the young boy clutches a small whip while the toddler grips a cluster of stylized cherries.
Research suggests that the flatness of American folk portraits was not necessarily a result of ineptitude on the part of the painter but in some cases was a conscious choice on the part of the sitter, and likely dictated by cost. Prior was able to paint in both an academic painterly manner as well as a more abstract, flat style. These three portraits, like most of his portraits of children, are executed in the latter style. An itinerant artist, Prior traveled from town to town, often accepting commissions in exchange for room and board. It was not uncommon for portrait painters to travel with partially completed canvases or panels; by preparing the backgrounds or general figural aspects in advance, Prior was able to fill in individual traits while efficiently completing his commissions. This habit makes it possible to identify his large body of unsigned work, as many of the portraits employ virtually identical backgrounds or poses.