Washington Allston was a scion of a wealthy and sprawling family, prominent in South Carolina politics and society for decades. The Allstons and Alstons (they spelled it both ways) were indigo and rice planters in the Georgetown region, who escaped the lowland cholera season with fine homes in Charleston. The future artist was born in All Saints Parish, Waccamaw, one of three surviving children of William Allston (1736–1781) and his second wife, Rachel Moore Allston (1757–1839). Washington’s father, William, was a colorful figure known locally as “Gentleman Billy.” Both he and his cousin, also William Allston, distinguished as “King Billy” (perhaps in deference to his greater wealth), served under General Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” in the Revolutionary War campaigns around the Pee Dee River. (“King Billy”Allston changed the spelling of his name to Alston, reflecting the original spelling of the name in England, but mostly in a largely futile attempt to avoid confusion.) After William Allston died, Rachel Allston married Dr. Henry Collins Flagg (1742–1801), a Newport, Rhode Island native. (Through this connection Allston subsequently became uncle to a family of Flagg painters, the sons of his half-brother, also Henry Collins Flagg [1790–1863].) In 1787, Washington Allston left his childhood home in South Carolina for the healthier climate of Rhode Island, where he attended school and first studied art. He continued to draw and paint during his undergraduate days at Harvard College. Allston graduated from Harvard in 1800, and returned briefly to South Carolina. Determined, by this time to be an artist, he sold his interest in the family plantations in order to finance his study in Europe.
Allston remained in Europe for eight years, spending four years in Rome from 1804 until 1808 where he established a lifelong friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He returned to America where he married Ann Channing, the sister of his boyhood Newport friend, William Ellery Channing, in 1809. The couple sailed for England in 1810. Ann Channing Allston died in 1815. During this second period in England, Allston established his reputation in Europe, enjoying the company of a society of artists and poets. When Allston returned to settle permanently in Boston in 1818, he left behind him a coterie of devoted friends and admirers and the likelihood of a distinguished career in England. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy of Art in 1818, shortly after he left, and there is speculation that had he remained, he might have been elected to succeed his teacher and fellow countryman, Benjamin West, as President of the Academy.
Washington Allston settled in Cambridgeport, where he spent the remaining 25 years of his life struggling to realize his monumental vision of the historical/biblical Belshazzar’s Feast (c. 1817–43; Detroit Institute of Art). Allston’s second wife, whom he married in 1830, was Martha Remington Dana, sister of the writer, Richard Henry Dana (1815–1882). Though his American career was marked by the frustration attendant on the Belshazzar project, Allston continued to paint portraits and landscapes. He received a steady stream of visitors to his home and studio in Cambridgeport, which became a kind of pilgrimage site for aspiring young American artists to whom Allston was invariably welcoming and encouraging. In addition, he was the object of reverential affection by a wide circle of intellectuals as well as a faithful cadre of supportive patrons.