William S. Elwell was the son of a noted cabinetmaker, and became a portrait and landscape painter. Elwell married twice. His first wife was Catherine Brewer, daughter of Henry Brewer. She died on 25 January 1839, after only five years of marriage. He was married again to Sybil Ely Bagg on 27 January 1842.
In 1831, aged 21, Elwell studied with Chester Harding in Springfield. It was here that he learned to paint the portraits which would become his forte. Elwell was subsequently employed as a government clerk in Washington DC, where he produced some of his most accomplished works: in 1848 he painted the celebrated portrait of Dolly Madison. Elwell returned to Springfield due to illness and suffered a debilitating stroke in 1855. Despite his poor health he painted until his death, aged 71. There are two copies of Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington by Elwell: one in his native town of Brimfield, another in the Springfield Council Room of the City Hall.
A portrait of Major George Washington Whistler, J. McN. Whistler's father, by Elwell, hangs in the Whistler House Museum of Art in Lowell, MA. It may be a copy produced in 1842 while Elwell still worked with Harding, or, perhaps Major Whistler was among Elwell's first sitters, as related by Ernest Newton Bragg in the Springfield Sunday Republican, 24 April 1910.
Bénézit, E., Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, 8 vols, Paris, 1956-61; Kostoulakos, Peter, 'William S. Elwell 1810-1881', askart.com, askart.com/Biography.asp (accessed 2003.07.02); Who was Who in America 1607-1896: Historical Volume 1607-1896, Chicago, 1963.