With its scenic background and prominently placed spyglass, this portrait of a ship's captain represents one of Micah Williams' (1782-1837) more elaborate pastel works. Williams began his career as an itinerate artist after his release from debtor's prison in 1815; he was previously engaged in a successful silver plating business with his brother-in-law James Applegate Priestly (1789-1873) in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Within six months of his release, Williams was creating portraits of local residents. It is possible that he received some formal training from the brothers Alexander (1772-1841) and Archibald (1765-1835) Robertson, the younger brother having visited the New Brunswick area in the late 1790s to sketch the landscape. Nearby Monmouth County, New Jersey proved to be the source of the majority of Williams' commissions during this period of his career.
Around 1828, Williams moved with his family to New York City. The family settled at 119 Clinton Street, in a neighborhood that was predominately made up of the working class. As the street was one of the main arteries from New York's wharves into the city itself, it was particularly home to seamen of all professions. It is likely that the lot offered here dates from Williams' time in New York, as at least one other portrait of a shipmaster by Williams exists, an oil on canvas now in the collection of Edward King, Jr. Like many of Williams' portraits, the brilliant blue of the sitter's eyes is mirrored in the sky in the background. The work is a rare example of Williams' more elaborate backgrounds, and possibly one of the only ones to feature a seascape complete with sailing vessel. For more information, see Bernadette Rogoff, Micah Williams: Portrait Artist (New Jersey, 2013).