John Neagle, portrait painter of Philadelphia

Robert Wilson Torchia, University of Pennsylvania


The purpose of this dissertation is to reconstruct the career of John Neagle (1796-1865), one of the most important native American portraitists of his time. Particular emphasis is placed on his work from 1821, the year he first exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy, until 1843, when he executed the full-length portrait of Henry Clay. The only other comprehensive study of Neagle was written in 1959. Since that time a significant number of letters and manuscripts written by the artist have been acquired by the American Philosophical Society and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. These sources lead to a more complete understanding of Neagle's personality, life, and art, than was possible before.^ Chapters are devoted to the artist's early development; to solving the iconographic riddle of his most famous painting, Pat Lyon at the Forge; to an examination of his important role in art politics at the Pennsylvania Academy, (a position that culminated in his election to the presidency of the Artists' Fund Society in 1835); concluding with an interpretation of his political campaign portrait of Henry Clay. In addition to these basic areas of study, information yielded by the contents of Neagle's two scrapbooks has made it possible to identify several lost portraits of extremely high quality. Of even greater interest, the artist's own ideas on art theory emerge from the long letters he wrote and published in local Philadelphia newspapers, letters that were never associated with their author because he wrote them under various noms de plume.^ The final objective of this study is to view Neagle's portraits within their full sociohistorical context. He moved freely among members of the social and cultural elite of Philadelphia who were his patrons. The assiduously self-educated artist was especially sensitive to the concerns of the doctors, scientist, ministers, lawyers, and philanthropists that he represented. The iconographic devices he used to explicate aspects of their professions demonstrate remarkable inventiveness and deal with fascinating issues. The facts that emerge here explain why Neagle was so respected by his contemporaries and justify the resurrection of his reputation today. ^

Subject Area

Biography|Fine Arts

Recommended Citation

Torchia, Robert Wilson, "John Neagle, portrait painter of Philadelphia" (1989). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9004834.