William Allen Wall (1801-1885)

William Allen Wall (1801-1885)

William Allen Wall was born to a prominent Quaker family in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1801. Throughout his career New Bedford would have a strong influence on his life path, essentially becoming a visual historian and chronicling the life of its citizens. He began his career as an apprentice to a watchmaker in Hanover, Massachusetts and by 1822 established his own business making and selling watches and clocks in New Bedford. After a few years he decided to leave the business and placed an ad in the New Bedford Mercury as a painter of portraits and miniatures. 

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Wall traveled to Philadelphia to study under portrait painter, Thomas Sully, and in 1832, went abroad to London, England, and spent two years in Europe studying major works in Italy, France, and Switzerland. Perhaps the most interesting part of his journey, he traveled with Ralph Waldo Emerson who chronicled their adventures. In his preparations to go abroad, he corresponded with Sully seeking his advice. Sully suggested that he make regular visits to the Royal Academy in London and that “the practice of painting portraits from life, while you are in the habit of inspecting the matured works of contemporary painters, will insensibly lead you to see nature in their eyes, and enable to you adopt what is excellent in their practice.”

In 1834, Wall returned to New Bedford and opened a studio on North Water Street. From there on, the town provided him with the visual material he needed for the rest of his life. He found success as a portrait painter for the many local families and there is scarcely an important New Bedford family without a portrait by Wall. He also found time to develop many large historical landscapes, choosing subjects predominantly related to New Bedford and the surrounding areas, such as this painting of the nearby Fairhaven Harbor. He exhibited widely throughout Massachusetts at several local New Bedford Galleries as well as the Boston Athenaeum, however during his lifetime, Wall never gained any great recognition of his accomplishments nor reward for his work, despite the fact that he was incredibly prolific, producing about 225 paintings. Since his passing, the artist has gained more critical recognition and has been recognized as the great visual historian of the town that he is.


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