‘Micah Williams: Portrait Artist,” on view at the Morven Museum & Garden from Friday, April 11, through Sunday, September 14, tells the story of a new America of the 19th century, when itinerant folk artists portrayed New Jersey’s farmers, orchard growers, militia officers, politicians, silversmiths, potters, carpenters, and families. An opening reception takes place Thursday, April 10.
Folk art, a powerful form of individual self-expression, is prized for the informal connection it offers to our past. To see what humans created many years ago to tell their stories, and how it still resonates today, stirs the soul.
“Williams’ works are represented in many major museums and are highly sought after by folk art collectors, yet there has never been an exhibition dedicated solely to his work,” says Bernadette Rogoff, curator of museum collections for the Monmouth County Historical Association, where the exhibition originated.
Beginning in the early 1900s, folk art experts became aware of a distinctive group of pastel portraits from Monmouth County, New Jersey. The artist was at first identified as Henry Conover, based on the inscription on one of the portraits.
The Monmouth County Historical Association in Freehold, housed in a Colonial Revival building based on Mount Vernon, started receiving donations from the descendants of the sitters.
In the early 1950s art historian Irwin Fearn Cortelyou discovered the artist’s name was not Henry Conover but Micah Williams — Conover was the name of the subject of the portrait. By the late 1950s, MCHA had the largest public collection of Micah Williams’ work.
Williams (1782-1837) is believed to have grown up in Hempstead, Long Island, probably the son of a farmer. By 1806, Williams was living in New Brunswick, and soon after marrying Margaret Priestly he went into partnership with her brother as a silver plater, buying a house on Church Street.
As a plater Williams worked for harness, bridle, and carriage makers, and several customers were well-known silversmiths in New York and New Jersey. “Williams was clearly creative, inventive, energetic, and clever,” writes Rogoff in the catalog accompanying the exhibition. He also invented a silver-plating process and bought stock.
Due to the economic circumstances of the time, his good fortune began to unravel by 1814. To stave off looming disaster, he began buying property and flipping it, but his debts to friends and local businesses mounted, and he wound up going to debtor’s prison.
“Debtor laws of the time were medieval,” says Rogoff. “You could be seized, arrested, and imprisoned simply on the word of your creditor. Williams was not alone. There was a huge spike in debtors the year before. In the 19th century, there was a serious and real sense of shame for failing financially. It was seen as a moral failing.”
The sheriff and his assistants went to Williams’ house and dragged everything out, including the beds his children slept in, says Rogoff. “His wife was pregnant with their fourth child. Everyone came out on the street and watched.”
Most debtors of the time owed about $500. Williams owed $5,000. “He was an overachiever as a debtor. His list of creditors was four pages long, but he signed it beautifully, as if it were a painting. He knew no way out and was going to own it,” says Rogoff.
Imprisoned in November, 1814, Williams may have been released in January of the following year, according to Rogoff’s research. “Debtors released from prison were allowed to keep the clothes on their back, their family’s clothes, and $10 worth of tools of your trade. He never practiced silver plating again.”
He instead took to making pastel portraits, even making his own pastels from ground pigment. In the spring of 1815, he hit the road. His profession for the next 20 years was as a portrait artist.
Williams relied on the same customer base as his silver plating practice, according to Rogoff. “These people wanted nice tableware and they wanted nice portraits. Painted portraits were no longer just the arena of the wealthy. With itinerant folk artists you could afford something nice for the foyer or parlor.”
Some artists advertised in newspapers, but Williams relied on word of mouth from his sitters, and the word was good, keeping him busy. From each adult he painted, there would be a spouse, children, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and so forth who also wanted their picture painted.
He was sympathetic to his subjects, rendering wrinkles and corneal blood vessels in a subtle and respectful way. He layered pastels for a lush feeling, and the paintings look like he enjoyed working on them, rather than churning them out.
It was a good time to be an artist, says Rogoff. “It was the beginning of conspicuous consumption and disposable income. People were defining who they were by having nice things. The opening of the Erie Canal made transportation of mass goods easier.”
“In 1815 America was a brand new country, taking its lead from Europe for literature, art, music,” says Rogoff. “James Fennimore Cooper was writing American novels for an American audience. Stephen Foster, the ‘father of American music,’ was writing ‘Camptown Races’ and ‘Old Folks at Home,’ and Micah Williams, as well as artists from Maine to the South, were defining America stylistically. None were trained. They were relying on their own artistic impulse and experiences to create a fresh American voice.”
By 1815 Williams — who may have developed his drawing and drafting skills as a plater — had a style that is identifiable and individual and remained constant throughout his career as he traveled the counties of the Garden State.
Along the way he came to Princeton, where he is believed to have painted Commodore Robert Field Stockton (1795-1866) in the 1820s. Stockton was a third-generation resident of Morven, head of the Pacific Fleet, and a U.S. Senator. The exhibition at Morven represents a kind of homecoming for the portrait, as the museum has recently acquired it from the estate of Kristina Johnson (U.S. 1, February 26).
The work came up at Northeast Auction in August, 2013, and with the help of a donor Morven was able to bid on it.
“Like most of Micah Williams’ output the pastel is unsigned,” says Morven curator Elizabeth Allan. “It is lined with a Trenton newspaper — my best guess is the True American — that dates to January of 1822. The frame of the portrait states that is it of ‘Mr. Stockton.’ Kristina Johnson’s records indicated that Mr. Stockton was Robert Field Stockton, our Morven resident. This is of course fairly difficult to prove. The age of the sitter is right — in 1822 Robert would have been 27 years old. He was at sea for much of 1821 but was back in the United States by the summer of 1822. He spent some of this time in Charleston where he met his wife, Maria Potter. The two were married in March of 1823, and the couple then moved to Princeton. It is certainly possible that Robert had his portrait done during a visit home or to commemorate his marriage in 1823.”
Williams used newspapers as lining between the wood backing and the portrait, which gives a clue as to when they were painted. Newspapers of the time were printed on an acid-free rag. “The portrait is sharp and clean with not one tentative line,” says Rogoff, herself an artist. “The man was good.”
She guesses Williams charged anywhere from $5 to $10 for a portrait, depending on the background, if there were elaborate poses, and if the hands would show. All were of a standard size. He did them quickly — often in a day — and handed them over when finished. He had nothing to do with the framing.
When Williams turned 46 he moved his family to 119 Clinton Street on New York’s Lower East Side, where he could learn to paint in oils. There is a portrait of Williams on a wood panel, done by an artist he studied with. “His early oils are closer in color palette to the pastels, but he gets darker as he gets older, pushing himself to become an academic artist with chiaroscuro and shadowing,” says Rogoff.
Williams had trouble getting commissions in New York — there were a few portraits of ship masters — and by 1832 he moved back to New Brunswick. Thousands were dying in the cholera epidemic, and with partners Williams bought property that landed him in court six months later for non-payment.
“His father-in-law never forgave him after that,” says Rogoff. Williams stopped working in 1835, and two years later died at the age of 55, leaving his wife Margaret an indigent widow.
Rogoff posits a possible explanation as to why Williams ceased painting: “On June 19, 1835, at 5 p.m., everyone in New Brunswick heard a roar, and there was an enormous dark cloud from the Northwest coming toward town. People left their homes and ran to the banks of the Raritan River, which saved their lives — there was a Wizard-of-Oz scale tornado that hit New Brunswick and leveled every structure in a three-block radius.”
According to one newspaper account, Williams may have been injured. Another theory is that he may have lost everything — documents, records, and correspondence. “Or he just gave up — it was one defeat too many,” says Rogoff.
Another theory she posits is that he may have been an alcoholic. Correspondence between two of his sons talks about “the tragedy of their father.”
Williams was buried in a graveyard next to the Presbyterian Church on George Street in New Brunswick. “But it wasn’t his last journey,” says Rogoff. The church decided to relocate the burials in 1928 to the Van Liew Cemetery in North Brunswick. Williams is buried next to his wife, who died in 1863, and her parents.
“These days, there are thousands of pictures of us posted online all the time, and it doesn’t mean anything,” says Rogoff. “But the formal portrait — this was it, the one time you’d get your image done. No one knew photography was coming in 1837. Every button, every ruffle, were all deliberate and meant a great deal.”
Micah Williams: Portrait Artist, Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Friday, April 11, through Sunday, September 14. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. $5 to $6. Opening reception Thursday, April 10, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Free. www.morven.org or 609-924-8144.