Medium: Oil on canvas
Date: circa 1830
Size: 22" x 28" (sight)
29 1/2" x 35 1/2" (overall)
Condition: This painting was cleaned and lined on linen using Beva 371 film to repair a tear to the upper left. The painting was painted on two pieces of canvas that were sewn together. The seam on the front is nearly invisible. In-painting was done to conceal the tear which was approximately two inches long.
This portrait came from a home in New Brunswick, New Jersey where Williams painted.
Oil portraits by Micah Williams are rare in contrast to his pastels. By some accounts there are only fifteen oil portraits in existence.
The modeling in his oils is more pronounced than his pastels but his poses are very similar. To reduce the time of sitting as well as painting he often presents that hands and clothing as nothing more than shapes. Most of the backgrounds are monotone though some appear with landscapes and interior elements.
Working as a portrait artist principally in New Jersey, Micah Williams created early in his career likenesses of area residents. His birthplace is not confirmed but it is thought he was born about 1782 near Hempstead, New York.
In the spring of 1815, he, a former plater of silver, was released from the Middlesex County jail in Brunswick, New Jersey, having been jailed during that year as an insolvent debtor. For the next twenty years, he would manage to support himself and family as an itinerant painter of pastel portraits.
The first published reference to him was in the New Brunswick Advertiser in December 1806, when he married Margaret Priestly. Soon after that he and his brother-in-law, James Applegate Priestly, established a silver plating business, and for a time they had done well. But import prohibiting federal policy---the Embargo Act of 1807 and the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, combined with The War of 1812, led to a severe economic depression, and the brothers' business collapsed. The Micah Williams family had all their possessions seized, a terrible hardship especially as Margaret was pregnant with a fourth child.
However, after serving jail time, Micah managed to rebuild his life and "joined the ranks of traveling portriatists at a time when the social order of the United States was undergoing profound changes". The industrial revolution and the rising of a class of wealthy persons created a market for portrait painters.
Early on as a portrait painter, Williams worked in the New Jersey counties of Middlesex, Monmouth, Bergen, Somerset and Essex with most of his clients being from Middlesex and Monmouth. Between the fall of 1818 to 1821, he produced over sixty portraits of Monmouth County residents. His method was to stretch a sheet of pastel paper on a sheet of newspaper and then attach the layers to a wooden strainer, usually of white pine and fastened at the corners with half-lap joints. This method proved practical because he could prop his work against pieces of furniture, which negated his having to carry an easel. Also, this proved an advantage later to art historians because the dates of the newspapers documented the time the portraits were completed. Many of his paintings had monochromatic backgrounds, but some had landscapes with trees and grassy hills and others showed interiors with elegant draperies and architectural moldings.
In 1828, Micah Williams and his family moved to New York City, where he learned to paint in oils. The family lived at 119 Clinton Street, a working class neighborhood. About 15 oil portraits survive from this time period; he also continued to make pastel portraits.
In 1832, the Williams family returned to New Brunswick, where he did pastel portraits for three more years. These works show a sophistication lacking in his pre-New York period, indicating he likely studied with a professional artist in the city. But that person has not been identified.
Williams appears to have stopped painting in 1835, and he died in November of 1837. A newspaper report of a tornado hitting New Brunswick in June 19, 1835, described those among the hardest hit as being a structure "Occupied by Mr. Williams." The full name was not given, but the timing of the ceasing of painting by Micah Williams and this occurrence can lead to the conclusion that this event ended his painting activity.
When Williams died in 1837, it appears he was again impoverished. His wife lived until 1863, and his talents seemed forgotten until the mid 20th century when new discoveries led to their study and appreciation, especially by the scholars Irwin F. Cortelyou and Bernadette M. Rogoff.
Bernadette M. Rogoff, "Micah Williams, Some Recent Discoveries", The Magazine Antiques, January 2009.