Micah Williams is best remembered as a gifted colorist who portrayed the middle-class residents of New Jersey and, briefly, New York City with an eye for telling detail. Active only from about 1815 to 1835, the prolific artist has long interested the Monmouth County Historical Association in Freehold, New Jersey, home to the largest public collection of his work. Museum curator Bernadette M. Rogoff recently completed a comprehensive study of the itinerant artist, who spent much of his life in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The resulting exhibition Micah Williams: Portrait Artist and accompanying catalogue bring together an unprecedented sixty-seven pastel and oil portraits by Williams, on view at the Monmouth County Historical Association through September 29.
What drew you to Micah Williams?
Simple curiosity. I recognized immediately that he was an exceptional talent and wanted to know more about him. I began by reviewing the seminal research by Irwin F. Cortelyou in Antiques in the 1950s and by studying the twenty-two pastel portraits in our collection to familiarize myself with his technique. Then I looked at property deeds, tax lists, court records, newspapers, account books, and ledgers. I was fortunate to track down a descendant and found previously unstudied family letters that are rich in detail.
Was genealogy important?
Very. Developing the family web helped us understand patronage. For example, Williams worked most extensively in Monmouth County between about 1818 and 1821, during which time he produced at least twenty-eight images of the extended Smock family.
You surmise that catastrophe started and ended Williams's career. Can you explain how?
The paper trail begins in New Brunswick in 1806, when Williams married Margaret Priestly and soon after opened a silverplating business with her brother. The War of 1812 caused many businesses, including his, to fail. In 1814 Williams was jailed as a debtor. He embarked on a new career creating pastel portraits in 1815. We know of no portraits after 1835, the year a
tornado struck New Brunswick.
How many portraits have you documented?
My current checklist numbers 272 identified, signed, or attributed portraits, of which eighteen are oils on canvas. The rest are pastels on paper. Eleven portraits are inscribed with a month, day, and year of completion. An additional six are inscribed with the completion year.
What do the portraits tell you about Williams and his subjects?
He was a quick study of human nature. He completed most of his pastels in a day. He was masterful at applying bright touches to almost monochromatic palettes, picking out an earring, buckle, or book in a way that draws attention. One fascinating aspect is the expression of individuality within the highly structured and narrowly defined boundaries of early nineteenth-century fashion. Portraits were uncommon before photography. Williams and his sitters chose clothing and props carefully.
You dispell the myth that he worked in oils only after he moved to New York City in 1828 or 1829.
Yes, the discovery of two signed circa 1827 portraits of Plainfield residents Aaron and Harriet Manning Osborn (Historical Society of Scotch Plains and Fanwood New Jersey) clearly proved that Williams was producing accomplished and lively oil portraits at least a year before his move to New York, where he stayed until about 1832. I consider these portraits the missing link between his pastels and his later oil portraits, which used a much darker palette overall.