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William Matthew Prior is known for the sympathetic, dignified manner in which he portrayed blacks, a reflection of his own Abolitionist leanings. He rendered this portrait of a black man with a greater degree of facial modeling than is seen in his "flat" style paintings, evidenced by the shading on and around the sitter's nose, under his eyes and below his mouth. However, the sitter's partially visible ear lacks definition, and his right thumb is awkwardly positioned. In his left hand he holds an open book similar in manner to a number of other portraits from the Prior-Hamblin School. A modest amount of embellishment is evident in this portrait, such as the dabs of gold paint outlining the book, the subtle pattern of the vest and the subject's gold chain and rings. The identification of the subject as William Whipper is based upon the family tradition which held that all of his personal belongings were labeled "W.W". Whipper was one of the leading moral reformers of his time, a self-educated man who displayed his literary and oratory skills in numerous resolutions and addresses. He was born about 1804 in Little Britain township, Pennsylvania, the son of a successful white lumber merchant and a black house servant. He spent his young adulthood in Philadelphia, where he worked in a commercial laundry in 1828 and operated a "free labor and temperance grocery" in 1834. Whipper's most notable addresses were written during this time, including his "Address before the Colored Reading Society of Philadelphia" (1828) and his "Eulogy on William Wilberforce" (1833). His essay "Non-Resistance to Offensive Aggression," published in Colored American in 1837, preceded Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" by twelve years. An active reformer, Whipper took part in numerous conventions of "free people of color" throughout the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s. He helped organize the American Moral Reform Society, dedicated to the principles of education, economy, temperance and universal liberty, and served as editor of their journal, the "National Reformer." By 1835, Whipper was residing in Columbia, Pennsylvania, where he married Harriet L. L. Smith on March 10, 1836. He enjoyed a successful business partnership with the wealthy black lumber merchant, Stephen Smith, and spent thousands of dollars aiding fugitive slaves who passed through Columbia on their way north to freedom. Later in his life, Whipper served as cashier for the Philadelphia branch of the Freedmen's Savings Bank. He died in Philadelphia on March 9, 1876, and was buried in Olive Cemetery.
depth 2.25 in ; height 27 in ; width 22.5 in