The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler

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Seth Williams, 1841?-??

Nationality: American
Date of Birth: 1841?
Place of Birth:
Date of Death:
Place of Death:


The Williams family were acquaintances of the Whistlers in Stonington, CT, and members of the family live in the area to this day.

C. L. Freer of Detroit noted that a portrait of Captain Williams was 'Painted for a gentleman friend of Capt Williams of Stonington, Conn. his first commission which included 4 other paintings then in the Luxembourg' ([1902], Diaries, Bk 12, Freer Gallery Archives). Furthermore, Freer noted that Williams' wife 'Bessy' was 'a noted reinswoman' (the note is nearly illegible but her name is clear enough).

If Freer was right, Williams may have been Charles P. Williams (born 6 November 1841) whose first wife was Betsey Smith (d. 12 September 1860) and who was remarried in 1862 to Georgia P. Babcock. He had three children by the first marriage, Bessie (who married E. Sherman), Mary (who married Coddington Billings) and Charles, who died young; and two by the second marriage, Georgia and Charles.

However, according to Eddy, at West Point, 'At one of the commencement festivities [Whistler] met a charming young girl, a Miss Sally Williams, and her father, Captain Williams', who later called on him in Paris and accompanied him around the Louvre, pointing out three paintings he wanted copied, including a painting by Ingres (see above), and said 'When they are finished, deliver them to my agent, and he will pay you your price.'

Only one Seth Williams appears in the 1850 Connecticut census, a farmer, 48 years of age, with a personal estate valued at $5,000; however, this does not fit in with the evidence that suggests Williams was a resident of Stonington.


In their publications before 1921, the Pennells stated that JW said he had painted Portrait of Captain Williams (YMSM 10) before leaving for Paris in 1855. In 1900, however, JW told Pennell (1921) that while studying in Paris he painted a portrait of a Captain Williams ('Stonington Bill') of Stonington, CT, and was subsequently commissioned to copy paintings for him (Copy after Schnetz's 'Les Adieux du consul Boëtus à sa famille' (YMSM 13); Copy after Ziegler's 'La Vision de St Luc' (YMSM 15); Copy after a Picture of an Inundation (YMSM 16) and Copy after a Snow Scene (YMSM 17)). Thus it is not clear from the Pennells' accounts whether the portrait was painted in America or Paris.

JW's mother did not approve of JW making contact with Williams, who had been rude to her, and urged him on 23 September 1856 to have nothing to do with him (#06476).

In January 1857 JW was working on copies for Williams, so that if JW remembered the sequence of events correctly in 1900, and the portrait of Williams was painted in Paris, it probably dates from the winter of 1856-57, and was sent with the copies to Williams's house in Stonington by March 1858 (A. McN. Whistler to JW, 29 January 1857, 25 March 1858, #06480, #06495).


Connecticut census, Vol. 9, New London county, town of Ledyard, p. 65; Eddy, Arthur Jerome, Recollections and Impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler, Philadelphia and London, 1903, p. 80; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908, vol. 1, p. 72; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 5th ed., revised, London and Philadelphia, 1911, p. 51; Pennell, Joseph, and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, The Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collection of Whistleriana Shown in Division of Prints, Library of Congress, Southwest Pavilion, Washington, G.P.O. Library Branch, 1921, p. 171.