The successful Philadelphia portrait painter John Neagle received one of the most important commissions of his career in 1842, when Whig Party members requested a full-length likeness of their presidential candidate Henry Clay (The Union League of Philadelphia). To execute the portrait, Neagle traveled to Frankfort, Kentucky, where he received additional commissions including this painting of Clay’s fellow Kentuckian Richard Mentor Johnson (1780-1850). Like Clay, Johnson served in both houses of Congress; he also served as the ninth Vice President of the United States in the administration of Martin Van Buren (1837 to 1841).
The son-in-law and student of Philadelphia painter Thomas Sully, Neagle displayed the same bravura brushwork as his mentor. Dazzling strokes define Johnson’s trademark red waistcoat, shiny silk cravat, ruddy complexion, and the breeze-blown gray curls that frame his pensive face. They also enliven the dense, lush trees edged in fall foliage, whose crimson color echoes that of Johnson’s vest. Neagle’s choice of a landscape background, rather than a studio setting, was relatively unusual for portraiture during this era.
The artist; (his estate sale, M. Thomas & Sons, Philadelphia, 31 March 1866). acquired before 1868 by Benjamin Ogle Tayloe [1796-1868], Washington; probably by inheritance to his second wife, Phoebe Warren Tayloe [d. 1881], Washington; gift 1878, renegotiated 1902, to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Ninth Annual Exhibition of the Artists' Fund Society of Philadelphia, 1844, no. 82.
- World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1 May - 30 October 1893, no. 2838a.
- Exhibition of Early American Paintings, Miniatures and Silver, National Gallery of Art, National Museum, Washington, 5 December 1925 - 3 January 1926, no. 34.
- A Gallery of National Portraiture and Historic Scenes, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 13 June - 10 October 1926, no. 162.
- American Painting, 1700-1900, Newark Museum, 13 November 1930 - 1 February 1931, unpublished checklist.
- Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 15 April - 30 September 1966. unpublished checklist.
- Loan for use by the United States Embassy, Moscow, 30 October 1971 - 31 July 1972.
- Corcoran [The American Genuis], Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 24 January - 4 April 1976, no checklist.
- 1812: A Nation Emerges, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, 15 June 2012 - 27 January 2013.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- Miles, Ellen G. "John Neagle, Richard Mentor Johnson." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 84-85, 259, repro.