Thomas Phelps William visited Europe with his daughter and a friend in 1857. His first wife was Betsey Smith (d. 12 September 1860). In 1862 he married to Georgia P. Babcock. C.L. Freer Freer noted that Williams' wife 'Bessy' was 'a noted reinswoman' - the note is nearly illegible but her name is clear enough (, Diaries, Bk 12, Freer Gallery Archives). The Williams family were acquaintances of the Whistlers in Stonington, CT, and members of the family live in the area to this day.
Williams was also a collector, and commissioned several copies of works in Paris when Whistler was a student.
Whistler's mother did not approve of Whistler making contact with Williams, who had been rude to her, and urged him on 23 September 1856 to have nothing to do with him (GUW #06476). However, by January 1857 Whistler was working on copies for Williams, so that if Whistler remembered the sequence of events correctly in 1900, and the portrait of Williams was painted in Paris, it probably dates from the winter of 1856-57, and was sent with the copies to Williams' house in Stonington by March 1858 (A. McN. Whistler to Whistler, 29 January 1857, 25 March 1858, GUW #06480, #06495).
The copies may have included Copy after Schnetz's 'Les Adieux du consul Boëtus à sa famille' y013); Copy after Ziegler's 'La Vision de St Luc' y015); Copy after a Picture of an Inundation y016) and Copy after Odier's 'Episode de la retraite de Moscou' y017.
However, later memoirs record various theories about the identity and involvement of 'Captain Williams.' C. L. Freer of Detroit noted that a portrait of Captain Williams was 'Painted for a gentleman friend of Capt Williams of Stonington, Conn. his first commission which included 4 other paintings then in the Luxembourg' (, Diaries, Bk 12, Freer Gallery Archives).
A.J. Eddy asserted, probably incorrectly, that when Whistler was a cadet at West Point, 'At one of the commencement festivities [Whistler] met a charming young girl, a Miss Sally Williams, and her father, Captain Williams', who later called on him in Paris and accompanied him around the Louvre, pointing out three paintings he wanted copied, including a painting by Ingres, and said 'When they are finished, deliver them to my agent, and he will pay you your price.'
In their publications before 1921, the Pennells stated that Whistler asserted he had painted Portrait of Captain Williams y010) before leaving for Paris in 1855. In 1900, however, Whistler told the Pennells (1921) that while studying in Paris he painted a portrait of a Captain Williams ('Stonington Bill') of Stonington, CT, and was subsequently commissioned to copy paintings for him. Thus it is not clear from the Pennells' accounts whether the portrait was painted in America or Paris, but the latter is more likely.
Connecticut census, Vol. 9, New London county, town of Ledyard, p. 65; Eddy, Arthur Jerome, Recollections and Impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler, Philadelphia and London, 1903, p. 80; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908, vol. 1, p. 72; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 5th ed., revised, London and Philadelphia, 1911, p. 51; Pennell, Joseph, and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, The Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collection of Whistleriana Shown in Division of Prints, Library of Congress, Southwest Pavilion, Washington, G.P.O. Library Branch, 1921, p. 171; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Whistler Journal, Philadelphia, 1921 , p. 171.