ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 1 George Peter Alexander Healy
Chicago’s first painter of note, G. P. A. Healy, is also, in some respects, the most remarkable. King Louis Philippe of France was not only a generous patron but numbered Healy among his friends. “I am accustomed to give orders, not to receive them,” Pope Pius IX told him. “But you see, Mr. Healy, that I also know how to obey,” and he went submissively back to his chair as the portrait painter had requested, “perhaps a little too abruptly,” Healy confesses.
President Lincoln joked with him when sitting for his portrait, suggesting that Healy supply him with bushy whiskers to hide his “horrible lantern jaws.” Healy put Lincoln, Grant, Sherman and Porter, all from life, into one big painting, ,”The Peacemakers,” which was burned in the fire of 1892 that destroyed the Calumet Club of Chicago.
Healy tells all this and more with pardonable pride in his autobiography. The painter thought well of himself, but is not overly boastful. He seems to have absorbed unlimited flattery without losing his keel. Like his first teacher, Sully, he enjoyed a huge success in life, and like Sully’s, his reputation was dissipated after death. Sully is slowly coming back. Healy’s star is still below the horizon.
Healy’s portraits of presidents of the United States hang in the Corcoran Gallery, Washington. His portrait of Chief Justice Taney is in the capitol. His heroic painting, “Webster Replying to Hayne,” is in Faneuil Hall, Boston, rated one of the important American historical pictures.
“Webster Replying to Hayne” was painted for Louis Philippe, who had commissioned Healy to copy for him a Stuart Washington and to paint other American celebrities. The king, on his visit to America in his youth, had met Washington and other revolutionary heroes. Healy painted for him, too, “Franklin Before Louise XVI.”
But before either the “Webster” or the “Franklin” was ready, Louis Philippe was dethroned by the revolution of 1848. Healy stayed on in Paris to finish the two pictures. “Franklin Before Louis XVI,” exhibited in the Salon of 1855, won for him the gold medal, the first time it ever was awarded to an American. Thereafter for life, Healy was permitted to exhibit in the Salon without the necessity of submitting his pictures to the jury.
The fall of Louis Philippe, with the loss of financial patronage, made living in Paris difficult for Healy, and after the Salon of 1855 he returned to his native America (he was born in Boston, 1813) and came on invitation to Chicago, a thriving city of twenty-one years, whose fame had reached Europe. Chicago he made his home until his death in 1894, except for occasional dashes back to Europe. On one of these visits to Italy in 1887, he was invited to contribute a portrait of himself to the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, the first American painter so honored.
Guizet, Thiers and Garnbetta sat for him and considered the flattery about fifty-fifty. Queen Victoria, who “feared to address an obscure commoner,” nevertheless was interested enough to talk to him through her consort, Prince Albert. “Ask Mr. Healy if,” etc., she would say to the prince, and Mr. Healy would tell the consort what to say in reply. The queen of Rumania, “Carmen Sylva,” was not so obsessed with her own dignity. “She told me, during the long sittings, all about her home life; about Carl, her husband; about her lovely little baby girl —“
It was William B. Ogden who persuaded Healy to come to Chicago after seeing the gold medal “Franklin” in the Salon of 1855. Introduced and sponsored by Ogden and with his great European reputation, Healy proceeded to paint everybody of consequence here. His extant portraits are reckoned around 500. Many others, including “King Louis Philippe,” painted for Gen. Lewis Cass, American minister at the French court, who introduced Healy to the king, perished in the Chicago fire of 1871. Numerous of Healy’s portraits are in the possession of the Chicago Historical Society, the Newberry Library, and the Art Institute of Chicago.