John Vanderlyn
Sampson Vryling Stoddard Wilder, about 1808–12

Sampson Vryling Stoddard Wilder is a half-length portrait of a seated man, turned three-quarters left and looking forward. He has curly brown hair and slightly tufted sideburns that extend to his jawline. His eyes are blue. The face and hands are painted in a range of red and pink flesh tones, with the strongest reds on the cheeks.

Wilder wears a dark green coat over a white waistcoat, stock, and shirt. The shirt has a ruffled front and is decorated with a gold-colored pin that has a white, pearl-like head. The lapels of the coat are a slightly warmer green than the rest of the coat and have a texture that suggests velvet. The sitter’s pants are painted ocher.

The figure sits in a Greek Revival chair with an elongated S-shaped contour that runs from the back rest to the hand rest. The chair has a distinctive barrel-shaped back and scroll handholds. Wilder’s proper left arm is in a relaxed position and conforms to the gentle curves of the chair. His right arms rests on a portable, wooden desk at the left side of the painting. The lid of the desk is open and its green cloth-lined surface is covered with documents. The edge of the desk is trimmed with yellow metal, probably brass; there are hinges and L-shaped brackets at the corners of the desk lid that also appear to be brass. A glass inkwell sits on the back right corner of the desk, just behind a bundle of papers. A quill pen lies across an open letter that is signed, "S. Higginson Jr." The paper closest to Wilder’s right hand, which had been folded in thirds and is now partially open forms a triangle; the surface of the letter that faces the viewer gives the name and address of the sitter.

The background at left is occupied by a red fringed drapery that has been tied back, and from which a red tassel hangs. The wall behind the sitter is olive green and is lightest at the center of the painting, behind the figure. The wall is slightly darker at the right side of the composition, and the drapery casts a dark shadow to its right. A gray chair rail runs horizontally, just below the center right part of the composition. The wall is grayish purple below the rail. At bottom right are two books. The larger book is bound in brown leather with a red title panel on the spine; that book is clearly identified with a title inscription painted in yellow to suggest gold lettering: "LEX MERCATOR." To the left of that book is a smaller one, which is bound in a blue cover. The title of that book is not identified.

Vanderlyn painted a strong light on the sitter’s face, white textiles, and hands. A softer light falls on the still life of papers, drapery, and chair. Together with the smooth brushstrokes, the light gives the figure a sculptural presence, rather than a warm human quality.

Sampson Vryling Stoddard Wilder was a wealthy merchant, gentleman farmer, and promoter of evangelical Christian causes. He was born May 20, 1780 in Lancaster, Massachusetts, the oldest of seven children of Sarah Stoddard Wilder (1753–1819) and Lieutenant Levi Wilder (1750–1793).1 The Wilders and Stoddards were seventeenth-century English emigrants, and the Vrylings were Dutch Huguenots.2 Levi Wilder was a merchant and farmer who had fought in the American Revolution. Near the end of his life, he had to mortgage his fifteen-hundred-acre farm to cover the loss of two shipments of potash off the coast of Ireland. Shortly after the elder Wilder’s premature death, Sampson began his career as a clerk for several retailers in Gardner, Boston, and Charlestown, Massachusetts.3

In 1802 Wilder commenced his independent career as a merchant in Boston in partnership with John Bryant.4 By November of that year, Wilder was employed by a prominent Salem merchant named William Gray (1750–1825) as his Paris purchasing agent.5 In the course of his career, Wilder would sail sixteen times to Europe. In Paris, he studied French with Latour Maubrey and became fluent. Wilder’s entree into the Paris commercial world was facilitated by a letter of introduction in 1804 to the French foreign minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838). That letter was written by Wilder’s pastor the Reverend Jedediah Morse (1761–1826), who was the father of the painter and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872). The elder Morse described Wilder as "a young gentleman, by profession a merchant, [who] sustains a fair character for integrity, intelligence, & industry in business."6 Wilder later declared that his career in France was an immediate success, claiming that he employed "upwards of twelve hundred persons and [shipped] goods to the amount of some millions of francs, having cleared for Mr. Gray, during the first eighteen months, some sixty thousand dollars, and for our own house upwards of half that sum."7

In 1808 Wilder left Gray’s employment. Their separation resulted from Gray’s refusal to increase Wilder’s commission and perhaps from Gray’s support of Jefferson’s embargo of 1807. That year, Wilder went to work for Stephen Higginson, Jr. (1770-1834), another prosperous Salem merchant. In 1809 Wilder met with President Thomas Jefferson and President-elect James Madison to discuss the current stalemate with European powers over matters of international commerce and the threat of war.8 In 1810 he represented the United States in place of the American ambassador (who was ill) at Napoleon’s marriage to Princess Maria Louise of Austria.9 He remained in Paris until the War of 1812 interrupted transatlantic trade.

Upon his return to the United States, Wilder purchased six hundred acres in Bolton, Massachusetts. Even during extended trips to Paris, Wilder actively developed the gardens on his estate, importing hundreds of fruit trees from France and grape vines reportedly from Versailles.10 Wilder’s farm produced wheat, oats, potatoes, and apples for cider.11 Wilder also raised sheep, a type of livestock common among many farmers who were among the vanguard of textile production in America. Between 1812 and 1823 he was a member of a mercantile firm called Richards, Taylor, and Wilder that specialized in importing French textiles and other goods.12 On June 15, 1814, the thirty-four-year-old Wilder married seventeen-year-old Electa Barrell in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she was living with her widowed mother. He had become acquainted with the Barrell family in his youth during his apprenticeship in Charlestown. The Wilders had eight children, four of whom lived to maturity.13 Between 1817 and 1823, Wilder again worked in Paris and his family lived there with him.

In 1823 Wilder returned from Europe for the last time and settled in Bolton. Upon his arrival in New York, Stephen Salisbury II (1798–1884)—the Worcester businessman and father of the founder of the Worcester Art Museum—wrote of the Wilders:

Mr. S.V.S. Wilder with his lady and children arrived from France this morning and they keep in this house. Mr. Wilder retains the manners, or rather the formality which he had when he went abroad but has less of the flourish for which he was so remarkable; he seems to be greatly impressed in religion; he manifested very deep interest in serious things in a short conversation which I had with him before breakfast this morning; his wife appears very amiable and I think she is more beautiful than before she left the country; my mother will perhaps remember that I did not think her so beautiful as others considered her but now I know scarce one whom I think superior to her in this respect; they have several very beautiful children. Mr. Wilder tells me he has returned with the intention of making home at his farm Bolton.14

Two of Salisbury’s cousins, who were the daughters of Stephen’s paternal uncle Samuel Salisbury, had married Wilder’s business partners Stephen Higginson and John Tappan.

A devoted Francophile, Wilder attempted to bring Napoleon to Massachusetts after the emperor’s exile in 1815.15 On September 2, 1824, Wilder hosted the Marquis de Lafayette–whom he referred to as "the revered and beloved Lafayette"—during his tour of the United States in honor of his contributions to the American Revolution.16 Lafayette and his party were met "at the line of this [Worcester] County, where an escort consisting of a company of cavalry and a large cavalcade of military Officers in full dress received and conducted him to the hospitable mansion of S. V. S. Wilder, Esq. in Bolton, where he lodged, and was sumptuously entertained."17 Wilder prepared for the feast by ordering a "doz. young fat fowls & as many pigeons & 1/2 doz. young ducks with plenty of eggs."18About 1830 Wilder met with President Andrew Jackson who had insulted the French government with his demands that the French immediately pay their debts to the United States. Wilder persuaded Jackson to tone down his rhetoric.19 In 1833 Wilder entertained Napoleon’s nephew Louis Napoleon in New York. 20

Wilder was active in public life as a philanthropist. From 1824 to 1841, he was a major donor of Amherst College and served as a trustee.21 In 1816 he met the Rev. Thomas Gallaudet—the noted pioneer in education for the deaf—and became a supporter of the Hartford Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb.22 Wilder devoted the most effort to evangelical Christian causes, founding the Paris Tract Society in 1818, the Bible Society in 1819, and the Paris Missionary Society in 1822.23 He also served from 1825 to 1842 as the first president of the American Tract Society.24 The national tract society was formed from local organizations in order to "diffuse a knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ as the Redeemer of sinners, and to promote the interests of vital godliness and sound morality, by the circulation of Religious Tracts, calculated to receive the approbation of all Evangelical Christians."25 Wilder was recognized at the time of his death by the American Tract Society "as a highly evangelical layman, of world-wide sympathies and relations, eminently fitted to preside over its counsels."26 He paid to have tracts printed in French and Spanish for distribution in Europe and used his mercantile connections to facilitate their dissemination. He also wrote three tracts: "The Village in the Mountains" (no. 193, 1826), "The Only Son" (no. 530, 1850), and a temperance tract called "The Well-Conducted Farm" (no. 176, 1825). In 1828 Wilder was one of the major contributors to the establishment of the Hillside Church near his estate in Bolton; the church was an evangelical church and was created in opposition to the spread of Unitarianism.

Beginning in 1826, Wilder was a director and agent of the Ware Manufacturing Company, an early producer of textiles founded in the central Massachusetts town of Ware.27 Not only was Wilder active in the industrialization of this town, he also helped to construct a church and settle Parsons Cooke as the minister there. In this instance, Wilder’s business and religious interests were deeply interwoven.28 In 1830 Wilder moved to Brooklyn and then New York City, where he was associated with the prestigious French House of Hottinguers and the Bank of the United States. Following Andrew Jackson’s dismantling of the Bank of the United States and the Depression of 1838, Wilder’s fortunes crumbled. In 1842 he even spent a short time in jail in Worcester as a debtor.29 In 1852 he moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, near where his daughter Francina Haines and her family lived. In 1857 he wrote a book of maxims that were published posthumously for his grandsons. Sampson Wilder died in Elizabeth on March 3, 1865.30

Sampson Vryling Stoddard Wilder is one of John Vanderlyn’s finest portraits and reflects the influence of French neoclassicism. The aloofness of the sitter, formal integration of figure and furniture, muted palette, and relative absence of visible brushwork are particularly characteristic of Vanderlyn’s accomplished neoclassicism.31 The portrait also possesses a linear quality, stark modeling, and what Vanderlyn scholar William T. Oedel calls an "‘airless’ quality" that further demonstrate the artist’s adoption of the French idiom.32 Prior to Vanderlyn, American artists typically emulated the work of British immigrant artists, based their compositions upon imported British mezzotints and, if possible, trained in London. In light of the strength of this portrait, it is somewhat surprising that Vanderlyn regarded painting portraits as a distraction from the more serious work of history painting.33 However, his preferences were in line with the academic hierarchies that were then current in both France and England.

The style and composition of Vanderlyn’s portrait of Wilder hint at the American artist’s debt to the young French painter Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867). In Ingres’s portrait of Philibert Rivière (1801, Louvre, Paris), for example, the subject is seated, turned three-quarters right, and facing forward. Vanderlyn followed this pose, although he turned the figure in the opposite direction.34 The long line of Wilder’s shirt ruffle and the elongated, gentle curve of his proper left arm also appear to follow Ingres’s characteristic method of stylizing the human form. Both sitters are represented as though interrupted at their affairs, with papers and books at hand. In each portrait, the sitter grips the handhold of the chair, creating a secondary focus and, in the Ingres painting, a point of tension. Vanderlyn has replaced the slight smile employed by Ingres with an aloof expression in his portrait of Wilder. The expression and lighting are more akin to another nearly contemporary neoclassical portrait by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, Jean-François de Bourgeon (1800, Musée Hôtel Sandelin, Saint-Omer).35 Vanderlyn was a leader in the American adoption of French neoclassicism, a style which would in the coming decade attract the interest of the Philadelphia artists Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860) and his uncle James Peale.

Although Vanderlyn probably borrowed the composition for his portrait of Wilder from recent French prototypes, the theme of a businessman or public official at his desk was well-established in eighteenth-century Anglo-American portraiture. Joseph Badger portrayed Cornelius Waldo in similar fashion in Boston in 1750. Joseph Blackburn, the English emigré, painted a number of seated men with books, papers, quills, and inkwells to suggest their professions, as in his 1760 portrait, Colonel Theodore Atkinson. And John Singleton Copley depicted John Hancock (1765, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and Isaac Royall (1767, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), among other sitters, pausing from work in their correspondence or account books.

The still-life objects in Sampson Vryling Stoddard Wilder suggest the busy office of the American merchant in Paris. The sitter’s occupation is identified within the portrait in part by the inclusion of Lex Mercatoria, the standard book of commercial law at the time. Among the stack of correspondence is a letter from "S. Higginson, Jr.," the Salem merchant for whom Wilder began working in 1808, thereby suggesting a date before which the painting could not have been completed.36 Another inscription on a document depicted beside Wilder supports a slightly later date for the portrait. The postmark on the letter just above the sitter’s right hand reads "68/LYON" and is of a type that was used for a limited time between 1810 and 1812.37 Lyon was an important textile center, hinting at Wilder’s area of specialty as a merchant. Moreover, Wilder’s address on that letter is given as 25 Rue de Cléry, where he is known to have resided in 1811 and 1812, and perhaps earlier.38 Thus, the inscriptions within the portrait help to correct the erroneous family tradition that the portrait was painted in 1805, and instead suggest that the portrait was painted between 1808 and 1812.

While the origin of Vanderlyn’s connection to his patron Sampson Wilder is unknown, both men were well-connected to the American community in Paris. Vanderlyn traveled to Paris first under the patronage of Aaron Burr and established a network of politically, financially, and intellectually influential patrons. In 1816 Elisha Mills Ely sent Vanderlyn "a few Ariadnes" via Wilder, demonstrating that the artist and sitter remained at least remotely in contact.39 The "Ariadnes" referred to in Ely’s letter were prints produced after a watercolor version of Vanderlyn’s head of Ariadne (1809–10, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), the subject of his famous painting, Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos (1809–14, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts).

Wilder is depicted by Vanderlyn sitting in a Greek Revival bergère, a type of armchair that was popular about 1800 in France.40 The bergère was associated with reading or writing at a desk or sitting in a domestic library.41 Wilder’s bergère was probably made in France, as the form did not become common in America until the 1820s. According to family tradition, the chair and desk that appear in the portrait were part of Wilder’s actual office furnishings, and the desk was still in the family at the time that the portrait was donated to the Worcester Art Museum.42

Figure 1. Samuel Lovett Waldo, Electa Barrell Wilder (Mrs. Sampson Wilder), about 1823, oil on canvas, 35 13/16 x 28 in. (91 x 71.1 cm), Worcester Art Museum, Gift of Lawrence Alan Haines in memory of his fther, Wilder Haydn Haines, 1981.332. Figure 2. Mlle. Hüe Debreval, Sampson Vryling Stoddard Wilder, 1819, watercolor on ivory, approximately 2 5/8 x 2 1/8 in. (6.7 x 5.4 cm), location unknown.
After his marriage, Wilder commissioned Samuel Lovett Waldo (1783-1861) to paint a portrait of his wife, Electa Barrell Wilder (fig. 1). Its nearly identical size and complementary pose suggest that the Waldo portrait was painted to hang with Vanderlyn’s Sampson Vryling Stoddard Wilder. As opposed to Vanderlyn’s French neoclassicism, Waldo’s brighter palette and somewhat more painterly brushstrokes hint at his British training; Waldo had traveled in 1806 to study with Benjamin West.43 Wilder may have regarded the lighter tone of his wife’s portrait to be an appropriate counterpoint to his own more sober portrayal by Vanderlyn. The couple also posed for a pair of miniatures in Paris. Sampson Wilder’s miniature (fig. 2) shows a slightly older sitter than in the Vanderlyn portrait, and represents him in a coat with a wide collar made of curly wool that complements his own curls.

1. Dwight 1966, 2. I thank Jonathan Allen Shaw for sharing his genealogical research on Sampson Wilder (Shaw and Shaw 1994).

2. Dwight 1966, 2.

3. Ibid., 2–3.

4. Shaw and Shaw 1994, n.p.

5. Strickler 1981–82a, 37.

6. Jedediah Morse, Charlestown, to Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, January 2, 1804, Sampson Vryling Stoddard Wilder Papers, 1634–1932, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Misc. Mss., folder 2.

7. Quoted in Strickler 1981–82a, 37.

8. Sampson V. S. Wilder, Washington, D.C., to James Bowdoin, January 5, 1809, Bowdoin-Temple Papers, a subset of the Winthrop Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, reel 51.

9. Wilder n.d., 202.

10. For Wilder’s development of his estate, see his correspondence with Captain Caleb Moore, 1815–1826, Bolton Historical Society, Bolton, Mass.; for his grape vines, see Shaw and Shaw 1994, n.p.

11. For Wilder’s crops and sheep, see Caleb Moore, Bolton, to Sampson Wilder, June 2, 1817, Bolton Historical Society.

12. For a specific example of Wilder’s supplying a wealthy American family with French textiles, see Cooper 1993, 40–41.

13. Dwight 1966, 22.

14. Stephen Salisbury II, New York, to Stephen Salisbury I and Elizabeth Salisbury, Worcester, Mass., July 28, 1823, Salisbury Family Papers, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, box 21, folder 2.

15. Dwight 1966, 17.

16. Sampson V. S. to the Baron de Staël, August 28, 1824, quoted in Haines 1865, 188.

17. Massachusetts Spy or Worcester Advertiser, September 8, 1824.

18. For preparations anticipating Lafayette’s visit, see Sampson Wilder, Boston, to Caleb Moore, Bolton, August 27, 1824, Bolton Historical Society.

19. Wilder n.d., 203; and Shaw and Shaw 1994, n.p.

20. Shaw and Shaw 1994, n.p.

21. Dwight 1966, 21; and Shaw and Shaw 1994, n. p.

22. Ibid.

23. Shaw and Shaw 1994, n.p.

24. I thank A. Kent Barnard, Executive Vice President of the American Tract Society, and Kristen Mitrisin, Archivist, for supplying early history of the society and Wilder’s place in it.

25. "Constitution of the American Tract Society," in the First Annual Report of the American Tract Society (New York: Printed at the Society’s House, by Daniel Fanshaw, 1826), n.p.

26. "Death of Officers," Fortieth Annual Report of the American Tract Society (New York: American Tract Society: 1866), 15.

27. The papers of the Ware Manufacturing Company are in the Museum of American Textile History in North Andover, Massachusetts.

28. Gura 1981, 201–03.

29. Wilder 1878, 49; and Strickler 1981–82a, 42.

30. Obituary, Boston Evening Transcript, March 6, 1865.

31. Susan E. Strickler, in Worcester 1994, 191.

32. Oedel 1981, 242–43.

33. Ibid., 238.

34. Ibid., 243.

35. Ibid.

36. Based on a close physical examination of the paint and style of this inscription, Susan Strickler suggested that this inscription may have been added later by another artist. (1981–82a, 39 and 46 n. 23).

37. This is the opinion of French philatelist Professor André Camboulives, as reported in a letter from Robert G. Stone, The France & Colonies Philatelic Society, to Susan E. Strickler, June 17, 1982, object file, Worcester Art Museum.

38. Strickler 1981–82a, 38, 46 n. 25. The Paris city directory for 1810 was unavailable to Timothy Riggs, former curator of prints and drawings at the Worcester Art Museum, who searched the city directories during a research trip to Paris.

39. Elisha Mills Ely, Paris, to John Vanderlyn, New York, July 30, 1816, Senate House State Historic Site, Kingston, New York, New York State, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Senate House State Historic Site, Kingston, New York.

40. I thank Michel Ceuterick of C & C Fine Art Ltd. for his help in identifying the type of chair. I appreciate the help of Mary V. Thompson, research specialist, Mount Vernon, and John B. Rudder, Assistant Curator, Monticello, for information about similar chairs owned by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and about the popularity of this chair in America.

41. Anne Popadic, curatorial intern, conducted research on the bergère for this catalogue.

42. Haines 1865, 115.

43. Strickler 1981–82a, 41.