William Frye, although identified as an Alabama artist, was actually born George Wilhelm Frye on September 13th 1822 in Breslau, Prussia which is modern day Warsau, Poland. He came to America with the intention of painting the portraits of Indians, but his settling in Huntsville in 1848 redirected his artistic interests. His work is distinctive and relatively easy to identify because most of his subjects have wide, staring eyes and their faces and clothing are usually painted in great detail. His figures show his interest in the daguerreotype, a photographic process which captured the likeness of sitters but forced them to stay motionless for long periods of time. The introduction of this photographic process caused many artists like Frye to create less painterly and more photographic likenesses in their work. Frye became one of Alabama’s most productive artists, much in demand by the state’s affluent families. In fact, according to Bryding Adams, few portrait painters were more successful in the state than Frye.
Among the portraits for which he is best known are the ones that he did of soldiers, like the Martin brothers, in the Civil War. Frye’s painting is a visual reenactment of an event that brought sorrow to many families during the Civil War, a bloody four-year engagement in which brother was often pitted against brother. In this oval format of two brothers, the mortally wounded Confederate soldier, his chest dripping blood, is cradled in the arms of his brother who is fighting for the Union. With faint tears upon his cheek, the latter offers a canteen of water to his brother. At this moment, the two brothers are seen in sharp contrast to one another. The Union soldier is all “spit and polish,” well-kept, down to his neatly trimmed beard and moustache. The dying sibling, on the other hand, wears a uniform that has seen better days. The make shift patch on his trousers seems to suggest the South’s inevitable defeat—threadbare, exhausted and dying. The poignancy of their experience is rendered not only in the imminent death of “Johnny Reb,” but in the very composition itself: the Pieta placement of the figures and the triangular containment of the two brothers, as if they, at this heightened moment, are the only ones that matter.
To date, more than 135 Frye portraits have been identified. Some are signed by the artist, but most are attributed to him based on the painting’s style and the birth and death dates and residence of the sitter. As a group, they represent the work of a most prolific and popular artist whose realistic and appealing style captured the varied personalities of his sitters and whose paintings, more than a hundred years later, still convey to the viewer a sense of being in the subject’s presence.