John Neagle Papers


Date: 1817-1865 | Size: 0.5 Linear feet


John Neagle was among the better known portrait painters in Philadelphia during the first half of the nineteenth century and was the husband of Thomas Sully's niece, Mary C. Sully. The Neagle Papers is a small assemblage of personal correspondence, documents, and notes assembled by Neagle during his career. The letters are primarily of a personal nature, but along with the five bound volumes, offer insight into Neagle's study of painting and the techniques he employed. Included among the bound volumes are recipes for varnish, megellup, and drying oils and notes on watercolor painting.

Background note

Like Benjamin Franklin before him, John Neagle was a Bostonian by birth and a Philadelphian by nature. One of Philadelphia's better known portrait painters during the first half of the nineteenth century and a promoter of the fine arts, Neagle was born into a family of middling means in 1796. After his father, Maurice, an Irish immigrant, died in 1800, John was raised in Philadelphia. In his autobiography, Neagle describes becoming obsessed with drawing at an early age, despite little family encouragement.

While serving as an apprentice to the "coach and ornamental painter," Thomas Wilson, Neagle began to explore the possibility of painting as a career. Through Wilson, Neagle was introduced to the portrait painter Bass Otis, whose work, he wrote, "set me on fire." After two months study with Otis, and committed research on his own, Neagle committed himself to becoming a portrait painter.

Having earned praise for his ambition and the quality of his work, Neagle turned away from coach painting and at the end of his apprenticeship in 1818, he struck out for Lexington, Kentucky, in the hopes of establishing himself in business. Finding that another painter, Matthew Harris Jouett, was already well entrenched there, Neagle moved to New Orleans, where he was again thwarted by the competition, before returning to Philadelphia.

In his home city, Neagle's career slowly began to develop. Exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1821 on, and becoming the protege of Thomas Sully by 1824, Neagle continued his studies. In 1825, he traveled to Boston to study with Gilbert Stuart for a year, returning to Philadelphia to marry Mary Chester Sully, Sully's niece and stepdaughter.

Over the next decade, Neagle worked in both New York and Philadelphia, producing his best known works, including Pat Lyon at the Forge and his portrait ofthe physician, William Potts Dewees (1833). In 1842, he was commissioned topaint his last great work, the massive portrait of Henry Clay that now hangs inthe Union League of Philadelphia.

Neagle's artistic output began to wane following the death of his wife in 1845, and he began gradually to withdraw from public life. In the late 1850s, he suffered a severe stroke which left him partially paralyzed. He died at home in Philadelphia on September 17, 1865.

Scope and content

The Neagle Papers contains less than 0.25 linear feet of personal letters and documents and five notebooks relating to the life and work of the painter, John Neagle. The letters to his wife and children are affectionate, intimate, and generally relate strictly to personal or family matters, such as planning vacations or excursions. There are membership certificates in the Masonic Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania and a share in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Several letters, however, provide glimpses into Neagle's work, including a letter from Kentucky, March 18, 1843, notifying Levi Dickson that he had completed his portrait of Henry Clay (now in the Union League), and letter written to Sully in 1838, congratulating him on winning a commission to paint Queen Victoria. In this letter, Neagle writes: Your notices & reflections upon artists are of infinite service to me, not only as interesting arts & information of these great things I have not seen, & I fear may never see, but they stir a spirit within me which stimulates me blood, to healthful action and improves & strengthens my mind to the desire of grappling with new difficulties. How strangely one mind is capable of acting through time & distance upon another. The collection also includes an interesting essay by Neagle on the history of painting, focussing mostly on the Italian masters of the Renaissance and baroque, and a valuable set of notes recording Thomas Sully's advice on the cleaning and restoration of paintings. The bound volumes offer valuable insights into Neagle's artistic techniques. The volumes include recipes for megellup, varnishes, and drying oils, instructions for cleaning and restoring works of art, notes on watercolor and landscape techniques employed by John Varley, Thomas Sully, and others, and Neagle's "Hints for a painter with regard to his method of study."

Digital objects note

This collection contains digital materials that are available in the APS Digital Library. Links to these materials are provided with context in the inventory of this finding aid. A general listing of digital objects may also be found here.

Collection Information


Series II was acquired in 1959; Series I was purchased at Sotheby's, 1985.

Preferred citation

Cite as: John Neagle Papers, American Philosophical Society.

Processing information

Recatalogued by rsc, 2002.

Alternate formats available

Series II is available on microfilm (Film 1388)

Related material

Additional Neagle Papers are located at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania ( Collection2112), which also houses Neagle's commonplace book ( Collection448)


Torchia, Robert, John Neagle: Philadelphia PortraitPainter (Philadelphia: HSP, 1989). Call no.: B N25t

Early American History Note

The John Neagle Papers provides a window into the world and the work of this nineteenth century portrait painter. The collection contains many insights on how Neagle approached his craft. It begins with an interesting notebook he kept on the history of painting. This volume is dated 1817. It traces the history of art from Etruria to the present. He discusses renaissance artists in some depth, such as Michelangelo and Raphael. He also discusses modern artistic training, mentioning the types of study done in Rome and France. Other notebooks contain essays Neagle wrote on art and artists, such as "hints for a painter." His notebook "Lessons on Landscape Painting" include a few watercolors that appear to be copies of landscape work done by Thomas Sully.

The letters in the collection often deal with Neagle and his family. It also contains a Valentine's Day poem sent to him, a lease that Neagle took out from Matthew Carey for his house on Walnut St., and various broadsides and stock certificates.

Finally, the collection contains what appears to be an autobiographical "sketch" written by Neagle in the 1850s and one small sketch of "Jim Brown" from 1861.

Indexing Terms

Corporate Name(s)

  • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Family Name(s)

  • Neagle family
  • Sully family


  • Art
  • Autobiographies.
  • Autobiography
  • Family Correspondence
  • General Correspondence
  • Manuscript Essays
  • Notebooks
  • Recipes
  • Sketchbooks
  • Valentines
  • Watercolor paintings

Personal Name(s)

  • Neagle, John, 1796-1865
  • Neagle, Mary Chester Sully
  • Sully, Thomas, 1783-1872
  • Varley, John, 1778-1842


  • Artists -- Pennsylvania
  • Artists' materials
  • Landscape painting
  • Literature, Arts, and Culture
  • Painting -- Study and teaching
  • Whist

Detailed Inventory

 Series I. Correspondence and notes
1817-186537 items; 0.25 linear feet(B N125p)
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
History of Painting (notebook)
1817 May 3051p.Box 1

Fragmentary notes written at age 19, based on reading on the lives of Raphael, Michaelangelo, the Carraccis, Titian, Rubens, LeBrun, and Reynolds.

 Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
Membership certificate in Freemasons
1818 May 6 Box 1
 Carey, Mathew, 1760-1839.
ADS lease to John Neagle and George Catlin
1822 October 21 Box 1

Lease of house at 116 Walnut Street to Neagle and Catlin for one year. "The said Neagle & Catlin hereby pledge themselves to keep the house in good order."

 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to Mary C. Sully
1825 August 3 Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to Moggy,(i.e Mary C. Sully)
1825 December 10 Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
Journal (fragments)
1826 May 26-1832 August 147p.Box 1

The remainder of the journal is located in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, filed with the "Blotter Book."

 Ennis, Susan.
ALS to John Neagle
1826 August 1826 Box 1
 Neagle, Alfred.
ALS to John Neagle
1826? Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to Thomas Sully
1838 February 6 Box 1

Written on back of a printed prospectus, "John Neagle Proposes to Publish, By Subscription, A Series of Well Engraved Portraits of the Medical Professors of the University of Pennsylvania, From original Paintings, To Be Executed By Himself, Expressly for the Work."

 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to Blanch Sully
1838 June 23 Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to Levi Dickson
1843 March 18 Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to "children"
1844 August Box 1
 Tiers, Arundius.
ALS to John Neagle
1846 April 21 Box 1
AL to John Neagle
1850 February 14 Box 1
 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts..
Stock Certificate
1850 May 29 Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to "children"
1850 August 9 Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to "children"
1850 August 13 Box 1
 Sully, Mary C..
ALS to Sally Sully
1850 August 19 Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to Bettie and Sallie Neagle
1850 August 19 Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
Manuscript sketches of my career as an artist
1850?7p.Box 1
 Account of an Annuity settled by the late Levi Taylor
1852 July 14 Box 1
 Memorandum of the illness and death of Margaret Dickson Neagle (called "Moggie"), daughter of John Neagle, Artist, & Mary Chester Sully
1853 June 263p.Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to "children"
1855 August 3 Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to "children"
1855 August 4 Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to Susan Neagle?
1859 April 25 Box 1
 Envelope--G. Robertson to John Neagle
1859 September 8 Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to Mary Neagle
1861 April 2 Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
Sketch of Jim Brown
1861 Box 1

Pencil sketch on back of small envelope

 Moore, David P..
DS Invoice for funeral of John Neagle
1865 September 17 Box 1
 Envelope--John Neagle to Elizabeth I. Neagle and sisters
n.d. Box 1
 Carey, Henry C..
ALS to John Neagle
n.d. Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
Clipped signatures
n.d. Box 1
 Neagle family genealogical material
n.d. Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
ALS to unidentified recipient
n.d. Box 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
Thomas Sully's advice about cleaning, varnishing, and restoring paintings
n.d.5p.Box 1

Includes notes on Sully's techniques, palette.

Access digital object:

 Sully family genealogical material
n.d.6p.Box 1
 Sully family list of births, deaths and marriages
n.d. Box 1
 Series II. Bound volumes
1825-18505 vols.(B N125)
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
On Whist
1850 volume 1
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
Receipts for making Megellup, Varnish, & Drying Oil; also for cleaning pictures . . .
1825 volume 2
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
Hints for a painter with regard to his Method of Study, etc.
n.d. volume 3
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
[On artists and works of art]
1826 volume 4
 Neagle, John, 1796-1865.
Lessons on Landscape painting . . . Illustrated with copies from Sully's copies, Varley and others
182727p.volume 5

Includes samples of watercolor paints, copies of landscapes by John Varley, and extensive notes on the watercolor techniques employed by Varley, Sully, Titian, Rubens, and others. "Presented by J. Neagle to his daughter Elizabeth J. Neagle, Augt. 1842"