William Matthew Prior was an exception to conventionally held notions about folk painters. He worked in a large city (Charlestown, across the Mystic River from Boston, Massachusetts); he made a handsome living as an artist, rather than making objects chiefly for his own enjoyment; and he adjusted his style according to his customer’s ability to pay. His most elaborate portraits could cost as much as $25.00, but, as Prior advertised in the Maine Inquirer on April 5, 1831, “persons wishing for a flat picture can have a likeness without shade or shadow at one quarter the price.” Such portraits—small, with plain backgrounds and little or no modeling, so that the figure appeared rather two-dimensional—were the mainstays of Prior’s busy portrait practice.
It would appear that Samuel Copeland, a secondhand-clothing dealer and real-estate investor from Chelsea, Massachusetts, was sufficiently affluent to pay full price for this complex and handsome portrait of his daughters. The girls—Eliza (about six years old), Nellie (about two), and Margaret (about four)—wear the off-the-shoulder dresses that were fashionable in the 1850s; their necklaces and hair ribbons also indicate their father’s prosperity. The book, flowers, and fruit they hold indicate that they are educated, obedient, and have a pleasant demeanor. The book has special poignancy, for Copeland, despite his business acumen, could neither read nor write.
In addition to being a skilled portrait painter, Prior was something of a political activist and was prominent in abolitionist circles. He counted a number of African Americans among his clients, including Samuel Copeland, and unlike many other images of blacks by artists of his day, Prior’s were painted with seriousness and sympathy.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
Three Sisters of the Copeland Family
- William Matthew Prior, American, 1806–1873
- 68.26 x 92.71 cm (26 7/8 x 36 1/2 in.)
- Medium or Technique
- Oil on canvas
- Accession Number
- On view
- Joyce and Edward Linde Gallery (Folk Art) - 237