John Toole, whose name was originally O'Toole, was born in Dublin, Ireland, on 26 November 1815 to Jane O'Toole and Michael O'Toole, a chemistry teacher. After his father's death as a result of an explosive experiment, John immigrated to the United States in 1827, along with his brother and sister. They were sent to live with an aunt and uncle who were established in Charlottesville, Virginia, the uncle as a tailor or shoemaker.
Facts regarding Toole's early education and artistic training are elusive. He was already painting by 1832 or 1833, during a stay in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. A large number of surviving letters to and from his wife provide more detailed biographical information about his later years--more than is usually available on the life of an itinerant painter.
In 1836 Toole married Mary Jane Suddarth (1817-1902), who came from a family distantly related to Thomas Jefferson. They settled in North Garden, near Charlottesville, and eventually had six children. John may have become a druggist or tavern-keeper for a short time after his marriage. He returned to painting by 1838, and it was to remain his sole source of livelihood from then on. Toole traveled through Virginia and its environs mostly painting portraits, with varying degrees of financial success, until his death in Charlottesville on 11 March 1860. His family then moved to Washington, D.C.
There is no evidence other than family tradition that Toole attended the University of Virginia. He nevertheless seems to have been a person of some education. Latin quotations appear in his letters, and his personal library contained both a French grammar book and a French edition of Voltaire's plays.
Toole also had considerable artistic cultivation. He studied and collected engravings based on the works of masters ranging from Bartolome Esteban Murillo to Benjamin West. Two drawing books he owned may also have played a role in his self-education. Wash drawings after Raphael cartoons demonstrate Toole's interest in the grand tradition of European history painting. The artist's best-known venture into this genre is The Capture of Major Andre.
Toole's major source of income, as for most itinerant nineteenth-century paintings, was the making of portraits. Nearly one hundred portraits, including drawings and miniatures, are attributable to him on the basis of style and provenance, although he never dated his work and in only one case signed it. A comparison of his painted portraits with extant daguerreotypes of a number of his sitters demonstrates that Toole's likenesses were accurate.
The introduction of photography caused a crisis in Toole's career. He attempted to come to terms with this new technique and is known to have executed portraits from daguerreotypes as early as 1857. He even worked with a photographer in Virginia, attempting to combine portrait painting and photography. This venture, however, proved unsuccessful.
In addition to portraits and occasional historical subjects, four landscapes by Toole are extant, one of which is the National Gallery's Skating Scene (1958.9.6), attributed to Toole on the basis of its provenance in his family. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
John Toole Papers. Manuscript Department, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, n.d.: no. 4876.
O'Neal, William B. John O'Toole. Exh. brochure, Bayly Art Museum of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1956.
O'Neal, William B. Primitive Into Painter: Life and Letters of John Toole. Charlottesville, Virginia, 1960.
Chotner, Deborah, with contributions by Julie Aronson, Sarah D. Cash, and Laurie Weitzenkorn. American Naive Paintings. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 383-384.