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Portrait of Thomas Williamson (1777-1846)

1811-1812
Origin: America, Virginia, Norfolk
Other (Unframed): 15 x 12 5/16 x 3/8in. (38.1 x 31.3 x 1cm) Framed: 17 9/16 x 14 7/8 x 1 3/16in.
Oil on mahogany panel
Museum Purchase, The Friends of Colonial Williamsburg Collections Fund
Acc. No. 2007-89,A
A half-length portrait of a young man, seated, turned 1/4 to the viewer's left, his hands not showing. He wears a high-collared, double-breasted, dark blue coat with gold-colored buttons, a white shirt, white stock, and white waistcoat, the last shown buttoned up to the neck. The stock appears to be somewhat small (or short) and loose, the pointed shirt collars laid back and exposing more of the sitter's neck than is usually seen in men's portaits of the period. He has pale skin, rosy cheeks, brown eyes, black hair, and a rounded head with a dimpled chin. His short hair is brushed forward on the sides and straight up on the top. The background is a mottled grayish-brown, presumably a loose definition of clouds. The sitter's proper left arm rests on an ill-defined brown surface, presumably a table top.
The painting was acquired unframed. Traces of gold leaf indicate that, at one time, it was in a gilded frame.
Label:Yes, these are the same subject by the same artist, Cephas Thompson. Today we think nothing of printing multiple photographic portraits, but we don’t expect to find original portraits that look so alike unless one is a copy or even a forgery. That is not the case here. The Williamsons commissioned at least five portraits of themselves from Thompson, most likely as gifts for family members. The couple had at least eight children together and three from Thomas’ first marriage.

A banker and local politician, Thomas Williamson considered himself a patron of the arts. In addition to Thompson, the Williamsons patronized other American artists, including William James Hubard (whose portrait of Lafayette is also on view in this exhibition) and William Dunlap, the noted artist-diarist who described in an 1819 visit to the couple seeing multiple landscapes, copies, and “some dozen” portraits by Thompson.

A register of the artist’s Norfolk subjects, presumably written in the order that they were painted, lists the canvas of “Mrs. Williamson” before the smaller panel picture. The dramatic artist changes in the subject’s drape and the contour lines of her figure, seen only in the canvas under a microscope, also suggest the larger format was the earlier likeness.
Provenance:Vendor Marshall Goodman is believed to have bought 2007-89 and 2007-90 when they sold at Freeman's Auctions (Philadelphia, Pa.) in sale no. 1275 on 22 April 2007 as lot no. 368. Goodman reported having seen, about 2002, these same two portraits in the collection of a family descendant [later identified as Tiffany H. Armstrong], unframed and propped on the floor in her home at 3207 Seminary Ave., Richmond, Va. It is not known who consigned the portraits for sale at Freeman's, but conceivably it was Armstrong. Armstrong disappeared from the Seminary Avenue address in Richmond city directories by May 2005; Goodman believes her deceased.