William Chamberlain (Chamberlin)

He is one of my favorites if not THE favorite but a tough artist to get any background information on. The only reference one finds on this artist is through a group of 89 cuttings donated by his granddaughter way back in 1916. Of those 89, only seven were of women! Why are so few women represented in this collection I do not know, as from what I have seen in the past, the ratio between men and women were just about equal, though I do admit I have seen more profiles of men than that of women. This granddaughter gives her name only as “Mrs. Frederick McClure.” She sounds so obedient! Was she Permelia Nichols? Genealogy is so fun to pursue as after spending many hours on it, it usually leads us back to square one. At any rate, this collection of silhouettes is still held intact at the American Antiquarian Society.

CHAMBERLAIN was born c1790 and although we know nothing of his early years, we know that he worked on profiles in the 1820s and the 30s. Harper, in Early Painters and Engravers in Canada does not mention CHAMBERLAIN ever working north of the border. He seems to have traveled only within New York and New England states. He must have had quite a long list of clientele, as his work is quite common, just as common as those of Peale’s Museum are. Although the cuttings made at the Museum were quite alike and somewhat boring, though I do admit that I like one particular bust shape, those cut by CHAMBERLAIN are challenging and almost all differ in one way or another.

CHAMBERLAIN had a unique way of cutting his sitters. He was probably the only cutter who had made hollow-cuts into a form of art using a technique of partial cuts, cutout head and bust, then improved upon his works by inking, applying a wash, or drawing the neck area, in which le left uncut! Although his granddaughter mentions that he used a “profile machine” this type of hollow-cuts are difficult to make and it took someone with real artistic vision.

Over the years, he seemed to have “browsed” through many different types of bust design. He made rounded busts, angular busts, pointed busts, busts with central notch and a combination of them. It is a shame that he did not “mark” his work. I have never seen or heard of a marked example. Have you? I believe those “Family Registers” with a pair of male/female figures are his work. These are usually dated in the early 1830s. Have you seen those fully painted silhouettes in color, black face of course that are seated? They are the works of this man, no doubt. Whether CHAMBERLAIN carted around an album full of precut figures, I do not know but his men and women seem to be all good looking and share some common traits. Could it be possible that the collection of 89 silhouettes presented to the American Antiquarian Society is not really duplicates of his work but remnants of his precut inventory? Almost all of his men look boyish and resemble Captain Kirk of the Enterprise!

There are plenty of Chamberlain’s works out there. So you need to be picky in adding an example to your collection. With this particular piece I think I’ve done it right. It is in its original frame with reverse painted decoration. I have never seen another decorated glass as this. It almost looks like a mourning piece but unlikely. The paper has an embossed “DOW SMITH.” Whether Chamberlain or its owner did this, I do not know. The embossing uses singular punches and not pre-made or customized. The original bubbled glass is cracked but this adds to its originality, and I will not attempt to repair it. This is a very good example of Chamberlain’s silhouette. I am sure this is his frame too. He probably made an additional dollar for his labor.

NOTE: This type of bustline is now 100% attributable to Samuel Banton. (Nov. 2009)

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