Tuesday, April 07, 2009

At the Museum: Thomas Sully, Portrait Painter

One of the leading portraitists in 19th century America was Thomas Sully (1783-1872), whose Ideal Head (c.1850) hangs in the American Gallery at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art. Sully was born in England but emigrated to the United States at age nine. He studied miniature painting with his elder brother after a failed apprenticeship in accounting, and went on to study briefly in England, but was primarily self-taught. There were no art academies in the U.S. in his youth, so he learned by copying the works of others. In fact, an early work was a copy of one of Gilbert Stuart’s famed portraits of George Washington. Like Stuart, he became a painter of presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and John Quincy Adams. He also, famously, painted a young Queen Victoria shortly after her ascendency to the throne of England in 1837. Perhaps even more famously, it is his portrait of Jackson that we see on the U.S. twenty-dollar bill today.

Sully was a hard-working and level-headed businessman, and very prolific both personally and professionally. The over 2,500 paintings he produced supported a family of nine (three step-children and six more). Although Sully never attended formal art training, both Gilbert Stuart and Benjamin West served as mentors. West, an American expatriate living in England, took the young Sully under his wing, wrote letters of introduction, and promoted his career wherever he could. West’s two portraits in the Museum collection, Mr. J. Fall and Mrs. Magdalen Whyte Fall, date to rather earlier than West’s interaction with Sully, but are typical of West’s work. West’s decision to paint his subjects in the dress of the day rather than imaginary Greco-Roman attire was revolutionary at the time. Sully followed this trend in most of his portraits, but the young woman portrayed in Ideal Head wears a dark green velvet drape that treads the borderline between classical and contemporary. Sully, like Stuart and West, was attentive to the individual features of his sitter. However, he did write that, “...I know that resemblance in a portrait is essential; but no fault will be found with the artist (at least by the sitter) if he improve the appearance.” Always the businessman, Sully knew that pleasing his sitters - and perhaps their vanity - was essential to building up his clientele. The Museum’s sensitive image of a young rosy-cheeked woman, draped in velvet and seated before an idealized landscape, may have been a commissioned portrait, but if it was, her name has been lost to history. On the other hand, this may be one of a number of works Sully produced depicting “ideal” physical types. Unless and until we know the sitter’s name, this work is titled to reflect that possibility.

Thomas Sully lived and worked in Philadelphia, then the largest city in the United States. He was influential in the development of his younger Philadelphia contemporary, John F. Francis, whose Still Life With Strawberries and Cream (c.1850) also hangs in the Museum’s American Gallery. Francis began his career as an itinerant portrait painter but decided to specialize in still life. He was also friendly and collegial with the Peale family. Charles Willson Peale assisted him by introducing him to Gilbert Stuart and other important American painters. His younger brother, James Peale, painted the Portrait of Nicholas Brewer II in the Museum collection. These interconnections may seem like strange coincidence, but in fact America was a much smaller place, and the art world even smaller.

Jill R. Chancey, PhD, is curator of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.