Washington Allston was born at Brookgreen Plantation (now home to Brookgreen Gardens) on the Waccamaw River near Georgetown, South Carolina. His father, a wealthy planter who had served with General Francis Marion, died when Washington was a small child; upon his mother’s remarriage, the family moved to Newport, Rhode Island. After graduating from Harvard University in 1800, Allston spent the following year in Charleston. In 1801, he traveled to London in the company of the miniaturist Edward Greene Malbone and entered the Royal Academy in September of that year. Inspired by his teacher Benjamin West, Allston resolved to become a history painter, an ambition which would lead him to create vast, complex paintings.
From 1801 to 1818, Allston spent most of his time in Europe where he made extended study tours of continental museums. On those journeys, Allston—himself an author of several volumes of poetry and art criticism—met several fellow artists and writers, including John Vanderlyn, Washington Irving and the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, all of whom became lifelong friends. His portrait of Coleridge, painted in 1814, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London; several other works, including Rebecca at the Well and Uriel in the Sun, were well received at the Royal Academy and resulted in his being made an academy associate in 1819. Allston began his most ambitious project, a monumental painting titled Belshazzar’s Feast, in 1817, a work which remained unfinished at the time of his death.
Throughout his career, Allston sought to imbue his portraiture with a romantic sensibility, resulting in works that were “statements of mood, of shadow, of pensive solitude and reverie.” This proclivity can be seen in an 1811 likeness of the artist’s mother-in-law. The daughter of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the wife of the attorney general of Rhode Island, Lucy Ellery Channing (1752-1834) is presented as a model of somber dignity, the painting’s golden glow suggesting great strength of character. In remembering his mother, Lucy’s son, the prominent Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, could not “recall one word or action betraying the slightest insincerity. She had keen insight into character … [and] her partialities did not blind her, even to her own children. Her love was without illusion.”