Of Irish ancestry, John 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.
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