Falmouth, ME, USA; [present day Portland]
Portland, ME, USA
Writer and first American art critic. Neal was born to a Quaker family, his father was also named John Neal (d. 1793) and his mother was Rachel Hall (Neal). His father died almost immediately after his son's birth. The younger Neal went to school at the Portland Academy until 1805. In 1808 he left to become a schoolmaster. Together with John Pierpont (1785 - 1866) (the future grandfather of J. P. Morgan) and Joseph L. Lord, he managed a dry-goods store in Baltimore, which boomed during the War of 1812, but collapsed afterward. A chance study with a penmanship teacher taught him the rudiments of drawing and he became a skilled portrait sketcher. He also began looking at pictures wherever he could. When Rembrandt Peale opened his museum in 1814, Neal joined that circle. He decided to support himself through writing and drawing, and to study law. His 1823 novel Randolph contained his first art criticism in the United States in the form of letters written by the hero, Holton. He contributed to newspapers and magazines and anonymously to Allen's History of the American Revolution (1819). By 1823 he had become a lawyer but the amorous nature of his tales (strongly autobiographical) and his personal attack on the Baltimore lawyer William Pinkney (1764-1822), resulted in his fleeing the city to practice law in England. Neal resumed writing, authoring articles on America for various British journals, including Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. His trip to Paris included a visit to the Louvre. An ardent suffragist, he published an article in Blackwood's, "Men and Women" in 1824 defending women's rights. He returned to the United States in 1827, still persona non grata in Maine, marrying a cousin, Eleanor Hall. He founded the literary magazine Yankee the following year, promoting the ideas of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), whom he had met in England, and the literary work of John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). He also continued to write art criticism. Neal became a fitness fanatic in England, espousing gymnastic classes for university education and creating the first gymnasium at Bowdoin College in 1828. Neal edited the Boston newspaper New England Galaxy in 1835 and the magazine Brother Jonathan in 1843; he also contributed to popular national periodicals such as Godey's Ladies Magazine, Graham's, Harper's, and the Atlantic Monthly. An address to the Broadway Tabernacle of New York in 1843, "Rights of Women," once again criticized the lack of equality for women in American culture. In 1846 C. Edwards Lester (q.v.) published his Artists of America, praising Neal for his acute eye. An autobiography, Wandering Recollections of a Somewhat Busy Life, was published in 1869. His papers were largely burned in the great Portland fire of 1866, but others are housed at Harvard University, Houghton Library. Neal's aesthetic judgments in his art writing, though hurried and sometimes flippant, has stood the test of time (Dickson). He preferred unlabored, loosely painted landscapes, notably the work of John Codman (1800-1842) whose career he literally made by praising his work in print. As an art critic, Neal contributed to the growing market for both landscapes and portraits that filled the walls of nineteenth century American parlors. His remarks in Randolph were the earliest American art criticism (Sears), though his contribution to art history was overshadowed by Lester and William Dunlap (q.v.). Both Whittier and Poe considered his writing important.
[not credited] A History of the American Revolution Comprehending all the Principal Events Both in the Field and in the Cabinet. Baltimore: John [sic] Hopkins, printer, 1819; Randolph: a Novel. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Published for Whom it May Concern, 1823.
[complete bibliography:] Sears, Donald A. John Neal. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978; Neal, John. Wandering Recollections of a Somewhat Busy Life: an Autobiography. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869; Lease, Benjamin, and Lang, Hans-Joachim, eds. The Genius of John Neal: Selections from His Writings. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1978; Dickson, Harold Edward, ed. Observations on American Art: Selections from the Writings of John Neal (1793-1876). State College, PA: The Pennsylvania State College, 1943; Lease, Benjamin. That Wild Fellow John Neal and the American Literary Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972; Felker, Tracie "Charles Codman: Early Nineteenth-century Artisan and Artist." American Art Journal 22 no. 2 (1990): 61-86.