John Neagle was born November 4, 1796, while his parents--Irish-born Maurice Nagle and Susannah Taylor, the daughter of a New Jersey farmer--were visiting Boston from their home in Philadelphia. He was baptized as a Roman Catholic, attended grammar school in Philadelphia, and briefly studied art with the drawing master and artist Pietro Ancora. He worked in his step-father Lawrence Ennis's grocery and liquor store until the age of fifteen, when he was apprenticed to a local coach decorator named Thomas Wilson. When Wilson began to take painting lessons from Bass Otis, Neagle was impressed with the likenesses he saw in that artist's studio, and resolved to become a portraitist himself. He studied with Otis for about two months and embarked on a rigorous independent study of art. By 1815 he had begun to paint small oil sketches that he sold for five dollars apiece. It was around this time that the aspiring artist resolved to change the spelling of his name from Nagle to Neagle, after seeing an illustration in Joel Barlow's Columbiad (Philadelphia, 1807) that had been engraved by James Neagle (c. 1769-1822). Neagle was further inspired when Otis introduced him to Thomas Sully, who soon became his mentor.
Tired from the drudgery of decorating coaches and encouraged by the successful results of his early efforts, Neagle left Wilson and set up a modest practice. In 1818 he sought greater professional opportunities in Lexington, Kentucky, but was frustrated by the presence there of Matthew Harris Jouett. He proceeded to New Orleans, where prospects for a portraitist were equally bleak, and immediately returned to Philadelphia, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Neagle began to exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1821, and his earliest portraits of Indians, actors, and clergymen contain the distinguishing characteristic of his mature style: they are forceful, penetrating likenesses that capture the essence of his sitters' personalities. He excelled in portraits of men, but his images of women were often of remarkably inferior quality. Perhaps as a reaction to detail-oriented coach decoration, Neagle was predisposed to learn the painterly British style of Joshua Reynolds, Henry Raeburn, and Thomas Lawrence that he absorbed through Sully's tutelage. In the summer of 1825 he returned to the city of his birth, where he studied with Gilbert Stuart and met Washington Allston. Stuart's influence on Neagle's development was decisive, and reinforced his penchant for the loose, abbreviated British style.
On 29 May 1826 he married Sully's step-daughter Mary Chester Sully, and departed immediately for New York City. There he executed portraits of noted actors and actresses that later appeared as engraved illustrations in a series of books titled The Acting American Theatre. Thereafter followed a period of intense artistic activity during which his artistic style matured rapidly. In 1827 Neagle painted the portrait that earned him a national reputation and for which he is best remembered today, the full-length Pat Lyon at the Forge (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). He painted a second version of it in 1829 (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia). The culminating accomplishment of this period, the Grand Manner portrait Dr. William Potts Dewees (1833, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia), demonstrates how well Neagle mastered the British style without ever having studied in England.
Throughout his long career Neagle painted Philadelphia's prominent doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and clergymen of various denominations. His portraits are often remarkable for the iconographic devices he used to explicate his subjects' professions or important experiences in their lives. Self-educated and conversant on a wide variety of intellectual pursuits, he moved freely in the city's elite social circles. An active and sometimes outspoken exponent of artists' rights who spared no efforts to promote the fine arts in America, Neagle was elected first president of the Artists' Fund Society, a group of dissident artists who had seceded from the Pennsylvania Academy in 1835.
In the early autumn of 1842 a group of Philadelphia's prominent Whig citizens commissioned him to paint the full-length Henry Clay (The Union League of Philadelphia), a portrait that served as a political icon for the Germantown Clay Club during the statesman's bid for the presidency of the United States in 1844. The artist travelled to Clay's farm Ashland in Lexington, Kentucky, and remained in the state painting prominent people until early 1843. The Clay portrait was Neagle's last major work. Depressed by the death of his beloved wife in 1845, he gradually withdrew from society. With very few exceptions, his artistic creativity diminished and his activity as a professional portraitist gradually tapered off. Neagle continued to paint portraits until the late 1850s, when he suffered a severe stroke. He died in Philadelphia in 1865. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Fitzgerald, Thomas. "John Neagle, the Artist." Lippincott's Magazine I (1868): 477-491.
Fielding, Mantle. Catalogue of an Exhibition of Portraits by John Neagle. Exh. cat. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1925.
Lynch, Marguerite. "John Neagle's 'Diary'." Art in America XXXVII, 2 (April 1949): 79-99.
Torchia, Robert Wilson. John Neagle, Portrait Painter of Philadelphia. Exh. cat. Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1989.
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: 19-20.