John Vanderlyn was born October 15, 1775, in Kingston, Ulster County, New York, the son of house and sign painter Nicholas Vanderlyn and his second wife Sarah Tappan; his grandfather was the Dutch immigrant and limner Pieter Vanderlyn (ca. 1687-1778). After completing his education at the prestigious Kingston Academy he went to New York City and worked at an art supply and engraving shop. He studied art at Alexander and Archibald Robinson's Columbian Academy of Painting. Vanderlyn soon attracted the attention of Aaron Burr, who provided him with financial support and patronage for the next twenty years. Burr arranged for him to briefly study with Gilbert Stuart in Philadelphia, and then sent him to Paris in 1796. Vanderlyn enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under the history painter and portraitist Francois-Andre Vincent. He copied works by the Old Masters at the Louvre, and met Robert Fulton, who stimulated his interest in panoramic painting.
Vanderlyn returned to the United States in 1800, where he made sketches of Niagara Falls for a series of engravings, and practiced portraiture in New York and Washington. In 1803 he returned to Paris in order to procure casts of antique statues for the newly founded American Academy of Fine Arts. He met Washington Allston during a visit to London, and the two artists later traveled throughout Europe together. In 1804 Vanderlyn painted his first historical subject, The Death of Jane McCrea (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut), which had been commissioned by Joel Barlow to be used as an illustration for his epic poem The Columbiad. In Rome he painted the powerful Caius Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage (1807, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) which was awarded a gold medal and admired by Napoleon at the Salon of 1808. His Ariadne Asleep on the Isle of Naxos (1812, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) was the first formal nude by an American artist.
The artist returned to the United States in 1815, and exhibited his works in several major cities, where the Ariadne scandalized unsophisticated and prudish American audiences who were unaccustomed to nudity in art. He settled in New York, and obtained permission from the authorities to erect a rotunda in City Hall Park where he planned to exhibit a large panorama of Versailles. The venture failed, and the artist declared bankruptcy. He spent considerable time and energy for the remaining years of his life in unsuccessful attempts to promote his panoramic views and regain control of the rotunda. After receiving a prestigious commission to paint The Landing of Columbus for the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. in 1837, he went to Havana in order to sketch the appropriate topography and foliage. Two years later he sailed for Paris to execute the painting, but work progressed slowly and rumors circulated that it was largely the work of assistants. When the artist brought the painting back to his native country it received little attention. His finances exhausted, Vanderlyn was forced to paint portraits in order to earn a living, and many of these late works are of extremely poor quality. Shortly before his death he unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the Senate to establish a national gallery and art school. He died on December 23, 1852, at the age of seventy-seven, embittered, destitute and alone in Kingston.
Vanderlyn was a proponent of the French neoclassical style well after it had exhausted its popularity. The figures in his most significant historical and narrative subjects were derived from classical statuary. At a time when most of his American contemporaries were attracted to the painterly style associated with London's Royal Academy, he worked in a highly finished manner, characterized by precise drawing and emphasis on human anatomy, that was promulgated at the Ecole. Like Allston and Morse, his attempts to elevate the aesthetic sensibilities of his countrymen by exposing them to the traditions of formal European academic art were doomed to failure. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Lindsay, Kenneth C. The Works of John Vanderlyn: From Tammany to the Capitol. Exh. cat. University Art Gallery, Binghamton, New York, 1970.
Oedell, William. John Vanderlyn: French Neoclassicism and the Search for an American Art. Ph.d dissertation, University of Delaware, 1981.
Mondello, Salvatore, ed. The Private Papers of John Vanderlyn (1775-1852), American Portrait Painter. Lewiston, New York, 1990.
Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 209-210.