The Green Tree: Highlights from the Collection of the Mutual Assurance Company of Philadelphia - April 2007
John Neagle
James Cowles Fisher, 1839
Oil on canvas, 30 × 25 inches
Exhibited: “Sixth Annual Exhibition of the Artists’ Fund Society,” 1841, no. 10. “Exhibition of Portraits by John Neagle,” Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, April 12–May 13, 1925, no. 95. “Framing the Board: A Look at Corporate Portraiture,” Mutual Assurance Company and Independence National Historic Park, Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, October 27, 1982–January 17, 1983, no. 3. “John Neagle, Philadelphia Portrait Painter,” Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, April 18– July 29, 1989, no. 27.
References: Mantle Fielding, Catalogue of an Exhibition of Portraits by John Neagle [exh. cat., Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts] (Philadelphia, 1925), 120–121, illus. Garvan and Wojtowicz 1977, 58–59, color pl. Robert W. Torchia,John Neagle, Philadelphia Portrait Painter [exh. cat., Historical Society of Pennsylvania] (Philadelphia, 1989), 166–167, illus. Robert W. Torchia, “John Neagle’s Portrait of Dr. John Elkinton,” Nineteenth Century, Magazine of the Victorian Society in America 18 (Fall 1998): 12, fig. 3.
RS 6238

This likeness of James Cowles Fisher (1756–1840) is especially significant because it was the first portrait that the board of trustees of the Mutual Assurance Company of Philadelphia commissioned of one of their chairmen, thereby initiating a corporate tradition. Fisher was born in Philadelphia, the fourth child of William Fisher III, who had served as mayor of the city in 1773. He was educated at the school of Robert Proud and, in partnership with his brother Samuel W. Fisher, became a successful ship owner and merchant. An active businessman, Fisher was a director of the Bank of the United States for many years and a trustee of the Mutual Assurance Company from 1809 until his death. Fisher loaned the company $2,500 to allow it to relocate to a new office on 54 Walnut Street in 1812. He may have had some interest in art because he commissioned Thomas Birch (1779–1851) to paint a view of his estate, Southeast View of “Sedgeley Park,” the Country Seat of James Cowles Fisher, Esq. (c. 1819, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.).

Fisher was elected the sixth chairman of the board of directors of the Mutual Assurance Company in 1834 and served in that position until his death. The trustees commissioned John Neagle to paint his portrait in 1839 for a fee of $180. Of Irish ancestry, Neagle was born in Boston while his parents, who lived in Philadelphia, were visiting the city. He briefly studied art with the drawing master and artist Pietro Ancora (dates unknown) and worked in his stepfather Lawrence Ennis’s grocery and liquor store until the age of fifteen, when he was apprenticed to a local coach decorator named Thomas Wilson. Neagle decided to become a portraitist and studied with Bass Otis (1784–1861) for about two months before embarking on a rigorous independent study of art. Otis introduced Neagle to the city’s leading artist, Thomas Sully (1783–1872), who became his informal mentor. Neagle worked for a while as a portraitist in Philadelphia and in 1818 unsuccessfully sought work as an itinerant in Lexington, Kentucky, and New Orleans, Louisiana. He returned to Philadelphia, began to exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1821, and during the summer of 1825 studied briefly with Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) and met Washington Allston (1779–1843) in Boston. Neagle married Sully’s stepdaughter Mary Chester Sully the following year.

Neagle earned a national reputation with his full-length work Pat Lyon at the Forge (1827, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). He excelled in portraits of men and over the years painted portraits of prominent doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and clergymen. These works were admired as forceful, penetrating images that captured the essence of their sitters’ personalities. Neagle often employed iconographic devices that explicated a given subject’s professions or alluded to some significant life experience. He never went to Europe but by the early 1830s had mastered the painterly British style of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), Henry Raeburn (1756–1823), and Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830). Neagle was also an outspoken exponent of artists’ rights and 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 members of the Whig party commissioned him to paint his last major work, the full-length Henry Clay (Union League of Philadelphia). Depressed by the death of his wife in 1845, the year the Mutual Assurance Company commissioned him to paint copies of portraits of their past chairmen Robert Wharton and Daniel Smith, he gradually withdrew from society. Neagle continued to paint portraits until the late 1850s, when he was immobilized by a severe stroke.

By the time the trustees of the Mutual Assurance Company commissioned Neagle to paint their sixth chairman, his professional status in Philadelphia was second only to that of his father-in-law Sully. This sympathetic image of an elderly businessman bears all the hallmarks of Neagle’s style. Garvan and Wojtowicz noted that “out of deference to Fisher or the company, Neagle painted this portrait with the proper attentive and dignified air befitting Fisher’s role as a trustee.” Even so, the artist imbued his subject with an aura of benevolence and familiarity. Neagle regarded his portrait of Fisher as one of his best works of the year and successfully requested the Mutual Assurance Company to lend it to the Artists’ Fund Society’s second annual exhibition in 1841. An anonymous critic who saw it there wrote to a local newspaper expressing his opinion that it was “a fine picture of an old gentleman and credible to the artist anywhere.”1


1. Letter to the editor from “A Friend of the Arts,” United States Gazette, 24 May 1841.


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