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Portrait Painters: George Peter Alexander Healy

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George Peter Alexander Healy was born in Boston on July 15, 1813, the first of five children of William Healy, an Irish immigrant and captain of a merchant vessel, and his wife Mary Hicks. Healy showed an early artistic interest: by 1830 the self-taught painter had opened a portrait studio from which he hoped to help to support his family. Although commissions were at first sparse, young Healy received important encouragement from Thomas Sully (1783-1872)) who advised him to make painting his profession. His fortunes also improved in 1831 when Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis, a leader in Boston society, granted him permission to paint her portrait and recommended his talents to other potential patrons.

In 1834 Healy went to France where he studied with Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835). A year later he traveled through Italy, visiting museums and churches in the company of Lady and Sir Arthur Faulkner who soon provided his introduction to London society. It was in England that Healy met and, in 1839, married Louisa Phipps. The couple settled in Paris where Healy embarked upon the beginning of a long and happy marriage and thriving career. His diplomatic and affable demeanor, together with his obvious skill, brought him tremendous success throughout Europe and the United States. Prolific, as well as talented, he had by 1867 produced more than six hundred portraits. The constant stream of commissions included dignified, imposing portraits of such celebrated figures as Pope Pius IX and Queen Elizabeth of Romania, the latter of whom developed a warm friendship with Healy and his family.

Although Healy, sometimes accompanied by his wife, traveled to the United States several times during the 1840s and early 1850s, it was not until 1856 that the entire family settled in America. They took up residence in the booming city of Chicago, which Healy used as a base for his work in Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and other cities. During the Civil War years he often traveled to Washington to paint military figures and members of the President's cabinet. The family returned to Europe in 1867, but George Healy crossed the Atlantic many times over the following years in order to fill commissions. In 1892 Healy, his wife, and one daughter returned to Chicago. The artist died in that city on June 24, 1894. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]



Healy was one of the most prolific and popular painters of his day. He was remarkably facile, enterprising, courageous, and industrious. "All my days are spent in my painting room" (Reminiscences). His style, essentially French, was sound, his color fine, his drawing correct and his management of light and shade excellent. His likenesses, firm in outline, solidly painted, and with later glazings, are emphatic, rugged, and forceful.

Among his portraits of eminent persons are those of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Pope Pius IX, Arnold Henry Guyot, William H. Seward, Louis Philippe, Marshal Soult, Hawthorne, Prescott, Longfellow, Liszt, Gambetta, Thiers, Lord Lyons, Sallie Ward and the Princess (later the queen) of Romania. He painted portraits of all the presidents of the United States from John Quincy Adams to Ulysses Grant—this series being painted for the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.[2][1] Healy also painted The Peacemakers in 1868 and Abraham Lincoln in 1869. In one large historical work, Webster's Reply to Hayne (1851; in Faneuil Hall, Boston), there are one hundred and thirty portraits.

His principal works include portraits of Lincoln (Corcoran Gallery), Bishop (later Cardinal) McClosky (bishop's residence, Albany), Guizot (1841, in Smithsonian Institution), Audubon (1838, Boston Soc. Nat. Hist.), Comte de Paris (Met. Mus. Of Art, New York), Isaac Thomas Hecker C.S.P., Founder of the Paulist Fathers (North American Paulist Center, Washington, D.C.)

Healy's 1877 portrait of a young Lincoln was the model used for a Lincoln postage stamp, issued on February 12, 1959, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth.