William Matthew Prior (American, 1806–1873)
oil on canvas
30 1/8 in. x 25 in. (76.52 cm x 63.5 cm)
Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont. Artwork in the public domain.
This portrait of Nancy Foy Lawson is a rare example of a commission featuring an African American women in nineteenth-century American art. Maine artist William Matthew Prior painted Lawson and her husband in Boston. Prior breaks with precedence and adopts conventions for this portrait similar to those of his white sitters. Lawson is portrayed wearing a fine green dress and white bonnet while holding a book, signifying her education and literacy. She is set against luxurious red drapery and a landscape backdrop, an artistic trope typical in painted portraits. Married to a clothing merchant, Lawson was originally from Maine, though lived at the time in Boston. This painting suggests her elite status as a free Black woman. Prior likely encountered Lawson and her husband William through their shared Millerite connections, a nineteenth century religious movement that believed in equality among races and genders.