In 19th-century America, a limner was a painter with little or no formal training who traveled from town to town soliciting commissions for portraits. The limner William Matthew Prior (1806-1873) was born in Bath, Maine. He had no formal training in art, but in 1824 he completed a painting in the studio of Charles Codman, a landscape and portrait painter, and it is reasonable to assume that Prior received some instruction from him. By the age of 18 Prior was making a living by decorating tea trays, drawing industrial machinery, and painting signs, and by 1828 he was painting portraits. In 1841 he moved to Boston and opened a studio with his brothers-in-law Joseph, Sturtevant, and Nathaniel Hamblen. To supplement the income of the partnership, Prior traveled by horse and wagon throughout New England and sometimes by train as far south as Baltimore carrying a wooden chest packed with blank canvases. He obtained some of his portrait commissions by advertisement and others by going door to door. In the early 1840s Prior and Joseph Hamblen joined a religious movement led by William Miller, who prophesied the imminent return of Christ and the end of the world. Miller’s followers were disappointed when the prophecy did not come true, but most, including Prior, maintained their faith. After his religious awakening, Prior believed he was blessed with a gift called the “spirit effect” that enabled him to paint portraits of subjects after they died.
Cole TB. Isaac Josiah and William Mulford Hand. JAMA. 2012;307(9):887–887. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.213
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