Isaiah Vansant Williamson (1803-1889) was born in 1803 in Fallsington, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to a Quaker family. After working as an apprentice in a country store he opened his own dry goods store in Philadelphia. Other business successes enabled Williamson to retire in 1838 with a small fortune. After a period of travel in Europe he returned to Philadelphia, invested his money wisely, and became one of the city’s wealthiest men. Williamson became a philanthropist who gave large sums of money to charitable causes. He is best remembered for founding The Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades near Media in 1888.
Evidently Williamson commissioned Thomas Sully to paint this portrait shortly before he retired. Sully recorded in his “Account of Pictures” that he painted a bust portrait of “Mr. Williamson” of 73 Market Street between July 3 and July 15, 1837, for a fee of $200. On July 17 the artist noted in his “Journal” that he had sent the portrait to the “Gallery,” a reference the art gallery that he owned with James S. Earle.
This is an exceptionally fine example of Sully’s male portraiture that was painted at his prime, just several months before he traveled to London to paint a full-length portrait of Queen Victoria for the St. George’s Society of Philadelphia.