George Peter Alexander Healy was one of the most popular and prolific portrait artists of the nineteenth century. Toward the end of his life he gave the Newberry over 40 of his paintings, one of the largest bequests the artist ever made.
Several of these paintings were returned to the Healy family, but more were added from other sources, leaving the library with a current collection of just over 40 portraits. Included in the original gift were paintings of General Ulysses S. Grant, Admiral David D. Porter, and President Abraham Lincoln. Healy created these three works from the studies he had prepared for his most famous piece: “The Peacemakers.” (The portraits of Lincoln and Grant can be found today on the east and west walls, respectively, of the Newberry lobby.)
Healy tended to produce multiple copies of his paintings; there are at least four copies based on the same study of Lincoln. The Newberry’s is arguably one of the earliest, since it depicts Lincoln in the same utilitarian chair that can be found in “The Peacemakers,” while two of the other versions feature a far more ornamental chair that was, presumably, one of the outcomes of Healy’s continued work with the Lincoln portrait.
“The Peacemakers” itself was completed in 1868 as a tribute to President Lincoln. It shows a meeting between Lincoln and his Union commanders William T. Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, and Admiral David D. Porter shortly before the end of the Civil War.
Healy actually made two copies of this painting. He gave the larger of the two to friend and fellow Chicagoan Ezra B. McCagg. That painting survived the Chicago Fire of 1871 after it was cut from the stretching on the back of the canvas, rolled up, and carried to safety—only to be destroyed 22 years later when the Calumet Club, where the painting was on long-term loan, burned down.
For decades the art world assumed “The Peacemakers” lost forever, until the smaller copy was rediscovered in 1922. That sole surviving copy is now part of the White House collection, but the individual paintings of Grant, Porter, and Lincoln at the Newberry provide insight into the power of the complete painting.
By Reader Services Intern Phoebe Metz