William Dunlap, the only child of Samuel and Margaret Sargeant Dunlap, spent his early years in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where he was born. The wealth of his father, a merchant specializing in the china and looking-glass trade, enabled the boy to receive a fine education. He was particularly fortunate in studying classical literature with the elderly Thomas Bartow, whose store of learning in the classics enriched the mind of his young friend. In the spring of 1777, Samuel Dunlap, whose sympathies were Loyalist, moved his family to New York City, where William was first introduced to stage drama. This interest was to continue throughout his life, and although reverses in fortune later dogged Dunlap, he never lost his enthusiasm for any aspect of the stage. In 1783, after the close of the Revolutionary War, the Dunlaps returned to Perth Amboy. Shortly thereafter, during the convening of Congress at Princeton, Dunlap first saw George Washington, and during the winter of 1783-1784, the young man painted a portrait of his hero.
From 1784 to August, 1787, Dunlap spent time in London, studying painting with Benjamin West and increasing his acquaintance with playgoing and with theater personages. Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s plays were among his favorites. Returning to the United States, Dunlap tried to establish himself as a portrait painter, but the theater soon came to be uppermost in his mind and work. The success of Royall Tyler’s The Contrast...
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