Portrait artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872) reflected the manners and demeanor of great people of his day. A naturalized American citizen, he preserved for posterity the nation's politicians, military heroes, inventors, actors, and aristocrats as well as European nobles and the queen of England. In the decades preceding the invention of photography, his prolific output of portraits and historic scenes became a storehouse of details from the past.
Born in Horncastle in Lincolnshire, England, on June 8 (some sources say June 19), 1783, to actors Sarah Chester and Matthew Sully, Thomas Sully emigrated to America with his parents and eight siblings at age nine and lived in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1795, his father arranged for his training for a career in business at an insurance office. The broker urged Sully's father to allow the boy to pursue art, his first love. He received coaching from school friend Charles Fraser, who became Charleston's most famous miniaturist, and from an elder brother, Lawrence Sully, who also painted miniatures.
Beginnings of Career
Sully quickly ended formal lessons with his first art teacher, his brother-in-law, Monsieur Belzons, and settled in Richmond, and then in Norfolk, Virginia, to live with his brother Lawrence's family and to study his studio work. According to Sully's logbook, which he maintained throughout a 75-year career, he painted his first miniature on May 10, 1801. After mastering the basics, he began working in oils on large canvases the next year.
After Lawrence's death in 1803, Thomas Sully married his widow, Sarah Annis Sully. With earnings from a growing list of clients, he supported her three children plus nine of their own. Content with a large, energetic family, he settled in New York and advanced his career by painting city notables. After six-and-a-half years, according to his precise calculations, he had produced 70 portraits and earned $3,203.
Advice from the Masters
Business slowed during an economic recession resulting from a trade embargo, forcing Sully to lower his rates to $30 per portrait. An encounter with painter Gilbert Stuart, a fashionable artist famed for his three portraits of George Washington, buoyed Sully's hopes and provided sensible advice. Relocated to Philadelphia, he found the city that suited him for life. To improve his methods, he studied briefly with Stuart and in June 1809 traveled to England to observe art at major museums. He repaid the friends who had advanced him cash for the journey with copies of great art by European masters.
Experiences in England focused Sully's attention on a need for improvement in modeling the human form. Following a study of osteology and anatomy, he advanced to historical pieces. To ready him for the shift, he observed the era's foremost artists, including Benjamin West, narrative painter for King George III. Europe's artistic giant of his day, Sir Thomas Lawrence, taught Sully how to produce flowing, glossy brush strokes for the elegant, romantic poses that earned him the nickname "the Lawrence of America." Lawrence introduced Sully to the family of Fanny Kemble, who was then a year old. In adulthood, the famed Shakespearean actress became one of his favorite subjects. She posed for him 13 times.
Achieved His Best Work
Returning to Philadelphia in 1810, Sully began painting narrative scenes, including one based on a play by Friedrich Schiller and another drawn from William Shakespeare's Richard III. He joined his peers in the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, which was founded in 1805. As his prospects rose, he painted perhaps his most famous historical narrative, the massive Washington Crossing the Delaware (1819). The North Carolina legislature, which had commissioned the scene, rejected it because it was oversized. Sully managed to sell it to a frame maker at the cut-rate price of $500.
His family well provided for, Sully relaxed into a steady rhythm of painting famous subjects, including the Marquis de Lafayette. At the accession of the 18-year-old Queen Victoria in 1837, Sully returned to England to execute his masterwork, a full-length painting of her commissioned by Philadelphia's Society of the Sons of Saint George. On this journey, he depended on his daughter Blanche for companionship and assistance. At Buckingham Palace, he posed her in royal robe and crown to take the queen's place after he completed the bust. The task was tedious and fraught with palace protocol, but the effort immortalized Sully's work and influenced three generations of painters and coin sculptors.
Back in Philadelphia in 1838, Sully received the accolades due a master artist. Into advanced age he added to his logbook, which numbered his life's work at 2,631 paintings and miniatures. A year after his death on November 5, 1872, in Philadelphia, his heirs published posthumously Hints to Young Painters and the Process of Portrait-Painting as Practiced by the Late Thomas Sully (1873). Its explanation of artistic works from the colonial and federal periods retained for history the inside information on color selection, lighting, and technique. His likenesses of 500 historic figures, including Daniel Boone, Benjamin Franklin, and U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson, are national treasures. In 2000, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City presented a retrospective of his drawings and canvases.
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