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Prime, William Cowper

    Full Name: Prime, William Cowper

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1825

    Date Died: 1905

    Place Born: Cambridge, Washington, NY, USA

    Place Died: New York, NY, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Career(s): educators


    Princeton University (“College of New Jersey”) art historian. Prime was the son of Nathaniel Scudder Prime, a Presbyterian minister and headmaster of Washington Academy, Cambridge, NY, and Julia Ann Jermain (Prime). The family moved to Sing Sing (now Ossining, NY), where Nathaniel directed the Mount Pleasant Academy. The younger Prime graduated with a law degree from Princeton (then known as the College of New Jersey) in 1843. He practiced as an attorney in New York City, 1843-53. In 1851 he married Mary Trumbull of Stonington, CT. During the Civil War, when the New York Journal of Commerce was closed down in 1861 for treasonous reporting (“disloyal conduct”), David Marvin Stone, persuaded Prime to edit the paper and hold the concomitant presidency of the Associated Press. Prime was responsible for concluding the news association war of 1866, a rift between east and west newspapers. He left the paper and AP presidency in 1869, retaining significant holdings in the newspaper. Prime’s first books were on his extensive travels, with titles such as Boat Life in Egypt and Nubia (1857), Tent Life in the Holy Land (1857), and I Go A-fishing (1873). Throughout his career, Prime had amassed various collections. He initially focused on coins, the on to early illustrated books and medieval woodcuts. Together with his wife they collected old porcelain. Prime published Coins, Medals and Seals in 1861, and Pottery and Porcelain in1878. Prime was an early exponent of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He both a trustee and vice-president of the Museum. In 1882, Prime announced he was willing to donate his porcelain collect to the College of New Jersey. Prime’s interest in establishing an art department at Princeton led him and McClellan to author a pamphlet for the university, The Establishment of a Department of Art Instruction. The pamphlet suggested that an art department should make no distinction between high and low art. In 1883, Princeton established a department of art (but no building), and Prime and Allan Marquand were made full professors. In 1884 he became a professor of the history of art and gave his first classes in 1885. However, even though his name appeared in catalogs, Prime stopped giving lectures only a few years later, perhaps because the College has lost interest in housing his porcelain collection. In his later years he acted as literary executor to McClellan.

    Selected Bibliography

    Passio Christi. Die kleine Passion. The Little Passion of Albert Durer Reproduced in Fac-simile. New York: J. W. Bouten, 1868; Pottery and Porcelain of All Times and Nations, with Tables of Factory and Artists’ marks for the Use of Collectors. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1878.


    Lavin, Marilyn Aronberg. The Eye of the Tiger: The Founding and Development of the Department of Art and Archaeology, 1883-1923, Princeton University. Princeton, NJ: Department of Art and Archaeology and Art Museum, 1983, p. 10; Rosewater, Victor. “Prime, William Cowper.” Dictionary of American Biography. New York: C. Scribner’s sons, 1928-1936; Prime, William Cowper. Later years. New York, Harper & brothers, 1854.


    "Prime, William Cowper." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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