Many biographical sources incorrectly suggest that Samuel De Wilde was born in Holland in 1751 and as an infant, his widowed mother brought him to England, where they settled in Soho. His family was indeed of Dutch origin but Samuel was born in London and baptised on 28 July 1751 at the Dutch Church of Austin Friars, in the City. De Wilde entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1769. He first exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1776 and at the Royal Academy two years later. From the 1790s (in his forties) he appears to have devoted himself almost entirely to theatrical portraiture, exhibiting some 80 theatrical subjects at the Royal Academy between 1792 and 1821.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, Charles Mathews (1776-1835), the actor, formed a renowned collection of theatrical paintings and drawings, which included many De Wildes. De Wilde worked for John Bell, a publisher of theatrical prints, and later for George Cawthorn, producing both small paintings and drawings. At least seventeen of De Wilde’s pictures, which eventually ended up in Mathews’s possession, were among those the artist had exhibited at the Royal Academy.
By far the greater part of the Mathews collection had been acquired after the actor’s death by an original member of the Garrick Club, John Rowland Durrant. Durrant subsequently gave it to the Club, in 1835. Mathews was a good friend of De Wilde and bought or commissioned paintings directly from him. Apart from taking advantage of several major picture sales, Mathews also purchased a number of De Wilde’s theatrical paintings from the sale of the publisher John Bell in 1805, and later on the dispersal, in 1819, of the noted collection of Thomas Harris. Harris, who had been manager of Covent Garden, and a major patron of theatrical painting in the late eighteenth century.
In 1819, Mathews’s son, Charles James Mathews, recounted how, in the autumn of his life, De Wilde was frequently to be found at the corner of Drury Lane Theatre, a portfolio under his arm. He died in 1832 at the age of eighty-four.