Pat Lyon at the Forge
John Neagle, American, 1796–1865 American
238.12 x 172.72 cm (93 3/4 x 68 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Kristin and Roger Servison Gallery (Gallery 133)
This portrait of leading Philadelphia businessman and inventor Patrick Lyon is unusual for its era because of its depiction of a subject engaged in manual labor. John Neagle was only twenty-nine when he received the commission for this work. He had begun his career by apprenticing to a coach decorator and then studied painting with his fellow Philadelphia portraitist Bass Otis. Neagle eventually began to work in the Romantic style under the combined influence of Gilbert Stuart, whom he visited in Boston in 1825, and Philadelphian Thomas Sully (Neagle later married Sully’s daughter). Through them, he learned to compose large-scale portraits in the European old master tradition. Neagle’s indebtedness to Stuart in particular is evident in the painterly surface of Pat Lyon and in the atmospheric darkness of the blacksmith shop. However, the picture’s ties to European styles end there.
Patrick Lyon was a wealthy, successful man when he commissioned Neagle to paint him, but he asked the artist to depict him as a blacksmith, the vocation in which he had begun his career. In the early nineteenth century, people who could afford such large-scale, heroic images of themselves usually preferred to be depicted in formal dress and surrounded by expensive objects, implying their aristocratic status. In contrast, Lyon explicitly told Neagle that he did “not wish to be represented as what I am not—a gentleman.”linkLyon’s prejudice against gentlemen stemmed from the fact that early in his career he was wrongly accused of theft by a group of Philadelphia bankers and imprisoned. Consequently, he preferred to be depicted as an honest workman rather than as a member of an upper class that he associated with injustice. Lyon also insisted that the jail in which he had been held appear in his portrait—Neagle included a view of its distinctive cupola in the upper left-hand corner. Despite the exceptional nature of this painting, it was widely admired in its time and gained the young artist many commissions. It is still Neagle’s most famous work.
1. William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, vol. 2, (New York: George P. Scott and Co., 1834), 375.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting link, MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).