Morven Museum and Garden will launch it’s newest exhibition, “Micah Williams: Portrait Artist,” with a public reception on Thursday, April 10, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
The exhibition draws upon a somewhat larger show organized by the Monmouth County Historical Society with one exception, a recent Morven acquisition of a portrait of Commodore Robert Field Stockton, (1795-1866) completed by Micah Williams around 1821. Grandson of the original owner Richard Stockton, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the commodore was a third-generation resident of the historic home.
His portrait is one of 40 paintings, mostly in pastel (six are in oil), by the 18th century itinerant painter Micah Williams (1782-1837), a prolific artist with 272 existing works known. Monmouth County was his largest source of patronage, said Morven Curaror Beth Allan. “Happy customers would recommend him to other members of their family and to friends.”
The exhibition, which will be on display through September 14, offers an unmatched look at the state’s 19th century farmers, orchard growers, militia officers, politicians, silversmiths, potters, carpenters, and their families and elucidates much about the life of the New Jersey artist whose works are in many major museum collections and highly sought after by folk art collectors.
“The first time Micah Williams shows up in the historic record is in New Brunswick working as a silverplater alongside his brother-in-law,” said Ms. Allan, interviewed on Monday while she put the final touches to the exhibition. “Economic issues drove him into debtors prison for two months. He had 123 creditors and left prison with only the clothes on his back and $10 worth of tools.”
It seems that at this point, the artist embarked on a new career as a portrait painter working in pastels. One of the first in the exhibition is of his wife, Margaret Priestly Williams (1787-1863), with whom he had seven children, The depiction shows Margaret dressed simply in a black dress and white cap. According to information compiled by Bernadette M. Rogoff, the Monmouth County Historical Society Curator of Museum Collections, who has researched the artist and his patrons for some two decades, Margaret was pregnant with the couple’s fourth child when the Middlesex County sheriff and his men arrived at the doorstep to seize the family’s household possessions.
“Micah Williams: Portrait Artist,” is on loan from the Monmouth County Historical Association. Ms. Rogoff’s research shows that he married in 1806 and later set himself up as a portrait painter in Monmouth County. He spent several years in New York City, where sometime in 1828 or early 1829 he continued his efforts in oil painting. It is not known with whom he studied.
The exhibition is in four galleries on the second floor. Don’t miss Commodore Stockton’s portrait, bought recently at auction. Ms. Allan wouldn’t say what had been paid for the piece, but whatever it was, it was worth it for the brooding “Heathcliff” quality of the man that the artist has captured. Stockton who would become a U.S. Senator, would have been 27 when he sat for the artist, and recently returned from service off the coast of Liberia as captain of the U.S.S. Alligator.
Compare it with Thomas Sully’s 1821 full-length oil on canvas on view in the first floor of the West Wing, the first and last room that visitors will pass through on the way to and from the galleries. There, too, you will find a daguerreotype of Stockton taken later in life.
“Williams lined his work with newspaper and it was amazing to find pages from the January 22 edition of the Trenton-based newspaper, The True American, on the back of this new acquisition,” said Ms. Allan.
All but one of the images on display are by Williams. The exception is a portrait of the artist, presumed to have been painted by his teacher. It shows the artist with his oil palette complete with daubs of paint and two thin paint brushes and may have been made when he was studying oil painting in New York City.
The small oval, only ten inches high, painted on a thin wood panel shows Williams to have been a slightly built man, with thinning sandy-colored hair above a narrow face. He is dressed simply in a plain white shirt without ruffle or bow under a somber black coat and waistcoat.
The likeness descended within the Williams family to his great granddaughter Anna I. Morgan, the last direct descendant to own the portrait, which was purchased by the Monmouth County Historical Association in 1980 after her death.
The exhibition demonstrates the progression in the artist’s skills and his rise in portraiture. Among his sitters was Clarkson Crolius (1773-1843) who was also painted by Albany portrait painter Ezra Ames, a work from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.
Eight years after he painted Daniel I. Schenck and his wife Eleanor Schenck (they were first cousins) he painted Daniel’s brother DeLafayette and his wife Eleanor (Nelly) Conover Schenck (a daguerreotype shows them in later years).
One nice touch is the inclusion of objects that are directly related to the images, such as the chair with a painted yellow rose border that is depicted in the portrait of Dinah Van Winkle Morgan the wife of Jonathan Morgan, stoneware potter of Morganville, Monmouth County (1823-1826). The chair is on loan from a descendant of the sitter.
Another feature is an interactive photo-booth which offers visitors a chance to have their own portrait made, courtesy of a museum staff photographer. Some period props are available.
Ms. Rogoff will share her unique perspective on the artist and his works in a brief powerpoint presentation followed by a gallery walk focusing on individual works on Thursday, April 24 at 10 a.m. Admission is $10, ($7 for Friends of Morven); reservations are required. Contact (609) 924-8144 ext.10, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Morven Museum & Garden is a National Historic Landmark. Hours are Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call , or visit: www.morven.org. 609.924.8144.