A smithy, hale and hearty, stands proud at his work, the tools of the trade around him as he smiles with rough-hewn charm at the viewer. An apprentice toils in the background, working the billows, but is no Dickensian wretch unhappy at his situation in life; clear-faced, he is a young man learning a trade from a master. In the background, we see the roof of a grand building, which we might feel possesses an ominous quality. This aside, the story of the painting ends there – to the uninitiated. The greatest paintings are often stories of time, place and people, and what’s really going on in John Neagle’s Pat Lyon at the Forge (1826-27) is no less than the story of the first great American bank robbery and one working-class man’s fight against the injustice imposed upon him by his so-called social betters.
August 1798 and Philadelphia, then America’s biggest city, found itself the center of an
Two days after Lyon’s departure, during the night of August 31st 1798, the Bank of Philadelphia suffered a robbery, with the staggering sum of $162, 821 (over $3.1 million in 2014 terms) taken from the vaults. Due to the lack of damage inside the bank, the authorities knew the theft could only be an inside job, and so it proved; however, they felt the smith who produced the locks on the vault had to be responsible and began a man-hunt for the innocent Pat Lyon.
By the time news reached Lyon of the robbery, and of the reward for his capture, the apprentice had died of the fever. Lyon returned to clear his name, walking the 150 miles back to Philadelphia, only for the city magistrate to disbelieve Lyon’s story, despite evidence to the contrary. Instead, the magistrate, certain the blacksmith had forged a spare key to the vault, had Lyon thrown into Walnut Street prison to await trail.
And there Lyon might have stayed, were it not for one of the dumbest acts in criminal history. Isaac Davis, a carpenter and one of the two men who committed the robbery (the other also having died of the fever) attempted to deposit the money into the bank from which it came in the first place, a move which, to say the least, aroused suspicion. Under questioning, Davis confessed to the burglary; the ‘inside man’ who assisted being named as Thomas Cunningham, a bank porter, who had stowed himself and the two partners inside the bank on the night of August 31st. With this, surely Lyon could walk out of jail a free man?
Wrong. Obstinate to the end, the law officials insisted Lyon must have played some part in the robbery, even if only as an accomplice. As part of a deal to allow Davis, the son of a prominent local judge, to avoid imprisonment Davis wrote a letter to Lyon clearing him of any part in the robbery, but even this could not spring Lyon from Walnut Street. For this, Lyon had to wait until the trial, in January 1798, for the dismissal of the case against him. By then, over three months in the squalid prison, where yellow fever had also claimed victims, had left Lyon in poor health; this recovered, but his reputation could not.
Lyon could now afford to have his portrait painted, but he had an agenda in mind. Lyon wanted no simple representation of his physical appearance; nor did he wish to present himself as a gentleman, having no affinity for the class which had treated him so unjustly. No, he told John Neagle, the artist Lyon commissioned, the painting must see Lyon, full-length, actual size, and at his work, dressed in his plain work attire of shirt (with sleeves rolled up) and leather apron. Moreover, the painting had to include the prison in some way, to remind everyone of the injustice meted out to the honest smithy.
For John Neagle (1796 – 1865), this would prove an once-in-a-lifetime commission. Neagle began his artistic life as a coach-painter, but unlike many other artists of the time, did not undertake a tour of Europe to further his skills. Instead, Neagle received some tuition from a Philadelphian artist named Bass Otis, who the apprentice Neagle knew through his master Thomas Wilson, who’d taken lessons from Otis. During his time with Otis, Neagle came under the tutelage of a more noted artist, Thomas Sully, who taught Neagle for the rest of what served as his training as an artist.
At this stage in history, portraiture was still the only way for an artist to make a living from his craft, Neagle being no exception, his clients all stemming from the growing middle class of New England, lawyers, doctors and church men. This made Lyon's commission for Neagle all the more remarkable, with Lyons’ insistence on being painted not ‘at his best’; instead of desiring immortality in fine clothes and surrounded by objects donating his status, Lyon wanted remembering in his customary surroundings, without pretension or delusions of grandeur.
The story behind the painting is found in the painting itself. We start at the top left-hand corner, where the sky behind the cupola of the Walnut Street prison (although some critics argue the building, despite Lyon’s request, is Carpenter’s Hall) is at once stark yet cloudy, and this, along with the cold, slate-grey roof of the building contrasts with the warming interior of Lyon’s natural place of work.
The line of direction then jags back, not into the far lower corner, but towards Lyon, via the mallet lying against the anvil. This lower diagonal compliments the one above the apprentice’s head, forming the left-hand side of the forge’s chimney stack.
But this journey is more than a simple direction taking us into the painting. From the stark of the prison, we go from youth into maturity and then the image of hammer striking into anvil, an image Goethe would later use in his writings on the nature of power and submission. The ruling class of Philadelphia attempted to hammer the working man Lyon into the shape they wished for him, but the blacksmith refused to buckle.
The hammers and pincers scattered across the floor can all be seen as discarded instruments of torture, all use on Lyon to no avail. The sharp nails (like Lyon’s other instruments, rendered with striking clarity) upon the work surface behind Lyon are loose and bind nothing, trailing from the heat of the fire to cool in the water container. Lyon is free, and that which sought to bind him are instead subordinate to the blacksmith.
And yet the experience suffered by Lyon has shaped him, and changed his life. Lyon could not afford Neagle’s painting were it not for the money awarded to him for wrongful imprisonment, and his prejudice against the upper class ‘gentlemen’ dictates the very painting in which he stands, literally as large as life. Perhaps this is Neagle’s motivation for the curious light of the cupola – it is the spark that lit the fire in the forge, and so created the reason for the painting’s existence.
Pat Lyon at the Forge proved the big success of the Boston art exhibition of 1828, not just for
Neagle’s painting helped changed the way people viewed the likes of Lyon, and how workers saw themselves; it also began the change from the European influence of the paintings of the Old World and towards a more American style of art. The change came slowly however, and despite his success, too late for Neagle, who returned to portrait painting for the rest of what proved a successful career once completing Pat Lyon at the Forge. However, with the spark struck, painters forged a new way ahead.
Pat Lyon at the Forge by John Neagle can be viewed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.