Painter. Internationally acclaimed for portraits, he also painted historical and documentary subjects (some including likenesses of public figures), as well as a few landscapes. He regularly crossed the Atlantic for nearly fifty years and made his home in Europe during extended periods. Although his mature style emphasized intense realism, his glittering career hinged on the cosmopolitan glamour he imparted to European royalty, American politicians, and the rich and powerful from both continents. Ambitious and industrious, in later years he fulfilled so many commissions that his painting often seemed formulaic and much influenced by the prevailing taste for the literalism of photographs, which he sometimes employed as models. Healy was born in Boston where he set up a studio while still in his teens. With encouragement from the visiting Thomas Sully, he determined to study abroad. In 1834 he went to Paris, where some months in the studio of Antoine-Jean Gros provided his only sustained artistic education. There he met the slightly younger Thomas Couture, whose friendship and stylistic example continued to be important to Healy's development. Healy left for Italy late in 1835 and the following year settled in London, where he built a successful portrait practice. After returning to Paris in 1839, he soon gained the opportunity to paint the French king. Impressed with Healy's skills, Louis-Philippe sent him back to London and then to the United States to paint national leaders for his gallery at Versailles. Healy lost his patron in 1848 when Louis-Philippe was forced from power. In the aftermath of political upheaval, French and even English commissions were fewer, so in 1855 Healy settled in Chicago. There he reigned as the leading artist in the Midwest but also traveled widely to execute commissions. In 1867 he returned to Europe, residing in Rome from 1868 until 1872 and then in Paris for another twenty years. During this period, he continued to travel throughout Europe and frequently to the United States. In 1892 Healy returned permanently to Chicago. Reminiscences of a Portrait Painter was published in 1894.
Much of Healy's finest work dates to the Parisian period of the 1840s and early 1850s. Among the most alluring female likenesses of his career, the three-quarter image of visiting American Euphemia White Van Rensselaer (Metropolitan Museum, 1843) exemplifies his strengths. Direct and unostentatious but self-possessed and worldly, the beautifully attired young woman regards the viewer with a coquettish glance and the hint of a smile. Dramatic accents of color set off her black dress, while a hazy landscape background refers to her recent travels in Italy. By striking contrast, in 1864 Healy sketched one of the best-known images of Lincoln, who numbered among several United States presidents he painted. Healy's seated Abraham Lincoln (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1887, and other versions) is a character study showing the troubled leader resting his chin on his hand in the classic pose of meditation. Lincoln's awkwardly crossed legs and off-balance torso signify that this is no ordinary official portrait but the record of a man whose greatness transcended cultivation of a public image. A few years later, Healy reproduced this pose in The Peacemakers (White House Historical Association, Washington, D.C., 1868), a major historical canvas. With factual accuracy abetted by portrait photographs from Matthew Brady's Washington studio, it depicts an important conference between Lincoln and three military leaders just before the Civil War's end. A large collaborative testimonial to the nineteenth-century American romance with Italy, Arch of Titus (Newark [New Jersey] Museum, 1868–71) shows the Roman monument with the Coliseum beyond, while in the foreground Frederick Church sketches the scene as Jervis McEntee and Healy himself observe. At middle distance, framed in the arch, stand Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his daughter Edith. (Because the poet had already departed Rome, the Longfellow vignette was directly lifted from a photograph.) The tribute to his artist-friends was more than nominal, for Healy persuaded McEntee to paint the arch and Church, the Coliseum and sky above.