George P. A. Healy (1813–1894)
Born in Boston, George Peter Alexander Healy was the son of an Irish sea captain. He taught himself to paint portraits and opened a studio in his hometown in 1830 with the encouragement of Jane Stuart, daughter of famed portraitist Gilbert Stuart, and painter Thomas Sully. Four years later, an influential local patron sponsored Healy's journey to Paris, where he worked briefly under Baron Antoine-Jean Gros and Thomas Couture. From them and from his studies of paintings in the Louvre, Healy learned to portray sitters with a fluid naturalism then little known among American painters. In 1839, French king Louis Philippe commissioned Healy to paint his portrait, the first of a series of royal commissions that took the artist to England and the United States to paint likenesses of statesmen and dignitaries. He combined a number of these in two large history paintings, one of which earned a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855.
That year Chicago Mayor William B. Ogden invited the acclaimed artist to open a studio in Chicago. Healy’s arrival in the young city galvanized local artists and patrons and coincided with the first significant efforts to establish art organizations and exhibitions. During his dozen years there, Healy painted some five hundred portraits of Chicagoans, while traveling often to Washington, D.C., and elsewhere to fulfill commissions, among them numerous official portraits of Civil War commanders.
According to accounts by his daughter and granddaughter, Healy left Chicago for Europe in 1867 partly to escape the volume of commissions that flooded his way. Based in Rome until 1872 and in Paris thereafter, he traveled across the Continent painting crowned heads as well as the pope and celebrated figures in society, the arts, and politics. On numerous return visits to the United States, he painted portraits of U.S. presidents and other distinguished sitters. By the 1880s, however, Healy’s style was increasingly eclipsed by the dashing painterly manner popularized by a younger generation of artists, such as Giovanni Boldoni, John Singer Sargent, and Anders Zorn. Healy returned to Chicago in 1892. Honored as one of the founders of local art life, he continued to paint until his death two years later.
George P. A. Healy, Daniel Webster, dated 1853
Oil on canvas, 30 1/16 by 25 1/16 inches
It has been said that no man was ever so great as Daniel Webster looked. George P. A. Healy’s portrait of the statesman fulfills one historian’s description of Webster as “a swarthy Olympian with a craggy face, and eyes that seemed to glow like dull coals under a precipice of brows.”[i] His level gaze, firmly set mouth, and disheveled hair evoke Webster’s popular image as an inspired orator and an impassioned defender of the Union. Healy sets off the sitter’s striking features with an undefined background that graduates from dark to light to create a halo around his head. The painted oval indicates the original intention to place the painting in a rectangular frame with an oval liner, a common portrait format in the pre-Civil War period.
Painted and sculpted portraits of Webster were prized by individuals and organizations with staunch Union sympathies, such as the Union League of Philadelphia and the Union League Club of Chicago. Powerfully projecting Webster’s forceful character, Healy’s image was widely replicated. The artist himself made some dozen portraits of him, primarily of this type, which others copied. Healy painted Webster from life in Boston in 1845, on commission from King Louis Philippe of France as part of a series of likenesses of international statesmen. He then decided to incorporate the portrait into an ambitious history painting depicting Webster’s most famous speech in the U.S. Senate: his defense of the Union in reply to South Carolina senator Robert Hayne’s assertion of individual states’ rights. Completed in 1851, Webster Replying to Hayne was acquired by the City of Boston the following year, just after the death of the revered orator sparked renewed interest in his likeness. For the next several months, Healy was, he reported, “fully employed” in turning out images of Webster based on his widely circulated history painting. The present portrait is one such, for which the artist charged between two and three hundred dollars apiece.[ii]
This work demonstrates Healy’s combination of solid representation of the sitter with a relatively painterly handling of such secondary elements as the coat and the background, where brushstrokes are clearly evident. His sophisticated style and ability to communicate the individuality of his subjects in flattering likenesses explain much of Healy’s astounding success in Chicago, where no European-trained artist had yet settled when he arrived there in 1855.
[i] Henry Steele Commager, The Growth of the American Republic, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 478.
[ii] Healy quoted in Frederick Voss, “Webster Replying to Hayne: George Healy and the Economics of History Painting,” American Art 15 (Autumn 2001): 50.