Portrait of Augustus Hemenway

Canton Local History Blog

Started by former Canton Local History Librarian Patty Ryburn, the Canton Local History Blog periodically shares research into town history, library history, and genealogy. 

Feel free to email aperry@canton.ocln.org with any questions you may have!

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Feb 23

Ralph William Williams (December 12, 1908 - September 21, 1976)

Posted on February 23, 2022 at 6:44 PM by Patty Ryburn


  (Portrait located on the second floor of the Canton Public Library and 

a gift of the artist’s widow, Mrs. Ralph (Marion) Williams.  

Model is Linda Tonge.  Photo taken by the author).


(December 12, 1908 - September 21, 1976)

Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, artist Ralph William Williams had a full and varied career first as a stained glass artist, then later as a commercial artist--and in particular--as a portrait painter.  Most famously, his pastel prints of the young women who became known as the “Breck Girls” have become a part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History archives and live on in the advertising annals of Americana.

A native of the Boston area, Williams attended Dorchester High School before studying at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  He taught at the Rolf School of Art in Boston and his early work also included designing and painting stained glass windows in various locales across the country, including at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  Locally, it is believed that his work can also be found at Boston’s First Church of Christ, Scientist located at the Christian Science Plaza in the Back Bay. 


During the WWII era, Williams contributed to the war effort by using his artistic talents to help promote war bond drives and created posters for the U.S. Navy.  He was also doing portraits of locally prominent people in various social and business circles, as well as those more nationally known.  It was his winning portrait of the popular actress Mary Pickford in a New England art contest that helped Williams shift gears into a focus on portraiture and what would eventually become a highly successful career as a portrait artist.

Hollywood’s Paramount Studios employed Williams’ talents for displays of some of their best-known actors--Shirley Temple, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart--before Williams eventually settled on the east coast, and in Canton specifically, in 1956.  Married to Marion (Swanson) (another Dorchester native) and with their son Donald, the artist then began a long-standing and lucrative association with Edward Breck of Springfield, MA, son of founder Dr. John H. Breck, Sr.--a physician specializing in scalp diseases--whose formulation of both the first liquid shampoo in 1908, then the first ph balanced shampoo in 1930, revolutionized the hair care industry.  

The longest continuing campaign in advertising history, the “Breck Girl” portraits paralleled the growth of the Breck company from a single proprietorship to a worldwide distributor.  When Edward Breck took over management of the Breck company in 1936, he hired Springfield-local commercial artist Charles Gates Sheldon to create portraits of women whose looks idealized American girlhood via romantic images of feminine beauty and purity.  For the next two decades, Sheldon created a body of work in these portraits that celebrated an innocent ideal of womanhood depicting wholesome women made more beautiful by their use of the Breck product line.  By the mid 1940s, the shampoos (color-coded for Dry, Oily or Normal hair--another first) moved from a locally available product sold exclusively in New England area beauty salons to one distributed and advertised nationally.  The Breck girls had--in essence--gone viral. 

Ralph Williams was only the second portrait artist employed for the company’s campaign and took over after Sheldon’s retirement.  His first Breck girl appeared in 1957 and could be found in advertisements on the back covers of magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, Vogue and Glamour, among others.  Where Sheldon had most often used actual Breck girls--i.e., Breck family members--he also used neighbors and employees of the company for his portraits.  Williams favored professional models, many of whom were associated with America’s Junior Miss contest which was sponsored by the Breck company.  Williams’ models included then-unknown but future celebrities Cybill Shepherd, Jaclyn Smith, Brooke Shields and Farrah Fawcett, among others.  

Williams also modified Sheldon’s style of soft focus with halo-ed light to one of brighter colors with an increased sense of individuality.  These changes also mimicked the societal shift for women over the decades from the mid 1950s to the mid ‘70s.  Williams created 100 pastel portraits at his studio in Canton and gifted two of them to the White House: that of then-sitting First Lady Betty Ford and also one of Martha Washington.  Williams ultimately succumbed to a sudden heart attack in 1976 while working at his easel and despite attempts to resurrect it, the Breck girl advertising campaign unfortunately seems to have died with him.   

On the second floor of the Canton Public Library near the Technical Services Dept., you can view the portrait donated by Williams’ widow before she left Canton to live in New Hampshire decades ago.  Many of Ralph Williams’ other portraits hang in the Breck Girl Hall of Fame in Phoenix, Arizona but Canton is proud to claim one of these masterful renderings as its own.