Born in Shropshire, England, William James Hubard’s career as a portrait artist began at an early age. According to family lore, his observations of the local clergy during mandatory attendance at church resulted in “excellent paper likenesses” in silhouette form. This precocious talent came to the attention of a certain Mr. Smith, a neighbor with a highly entrepreneurial imagination, who included the lad on an 1824 cross-country tour of Britain combining musical presentations with a demonstration of cutting profile portraits. Hoping to attract an American audience, Smith took Hubard to Boston in 1825, further exploiting the boy’s talents. By the following year, Hubard had departed Smith’s servitude.
Details of Hubard’s life between 1826 and 1830 are sketchy at best, although he did exhibit work at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1826 and at the Boston Athenaeum in 1827. By 1832, Hubard had achieved note as a painter of oil portraits in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Two of his “portraits in small” of statesmen Henry Clay and John Caldwell Calhoun were included in the important annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy that same year. These works reveal Hubard’s innovative ability to reduce the tradition of a full-length portrait in the grand manner to a much smaller scale and garnered the attention of several leading artists, including Gilbert Stuart, Robert Weir and Thomas Sully.
After 1832, Hubard began to spend much of his time as a peripatetic portraitist in the Virginia Tidewater. By 1837, he had acquired enough capital and reputation to marry the daughter of a prominent family. Following an extended trip to Europe, where Hubard painted the sculptor Horatio Greenough and made copies of early Renaissance paintings, the couple established a permanent residence on the edge of Richmond. Over the next decade, Hubard became the portraitist of choice in that city, patronized by Virginia’s most distinguished families.
Around this time, Hubard launched an ambitious project that would eventually impoverish his family. With permission from the legislature, he undertook to make bronze copies of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s monumental statue of George Washington which stood in the vestibule of the Virginia State Capitol. At great expense, he built a foundry at his home; however, only one of his six castings sold, and, by the outbreak of the Civil War, Hubard was in dire financial straits. He attempted to transform his foundry into a munitions works for the casting of guns and manufacture of explosives. On February 13, 1862, a shell exploded in the foundry, severely wounding the artist. Though amputations were made in an effort to save his life, he died two days later.
Hubard’s portrait of his young children with their dog displays many of the elements of style representative of the artist’s mature phase. In those later works, the “figures are well-placed on the canvas, in easy poses, and with faces usually turned slightly less than three-quarters from the beholder. The colour is everywhere bright and glowing, in contrast to the dark, cool tones of his earlier work.”