Current Exhibitions

Plays and Operas


Thomas Sully
American, born England, 1783–1872
Prison Scene from J. Fenimore Cooper’s “The Pilot”: Cecelia Howard and Katherine Plowden Arousing the Prisoner Edward Griffith from His Slumber, 1841
Oil on canvas, 37 × 28 in. (94 × 71.1 cm)
Birmingham Museum of Art, Museum purchase in honor of Richard Murray, former director, with funds provided by Dr. Walter Clark, EBSCO Industries, Mr. John Jemison, Jr., Dr. Cameron McDonald, Dr. John Poyner, Mrs. Alys R. Stephens, Mr. Elton B. Stephens, Jr., Mr. Crawford L. Taylor, Jr., and the 1984 Museum Dinner and Ball, 1984.67

The Paintings The Stories
Frances Anne Kemble as Beatrice, 1833 Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare (1599)
Portia and Shylock, 1835 The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare (1596-98)
Macbeth in the Witches Cave, 1840 Macbeth, William Shakespeare (1603-07)
George Frederick Cooke in the Role of Richard III, 1811-12 Richard III, William Shakespeare (1592)
Fanny Kemble as Julia in the Hunchback, 1832 The Hunchback, James Sheridan Knowles (1832)
William B. Wood as “Charles de Moor,” 1811 The Robbers, Friedrich von Schiller (1781)
See also the 1847 opera I masnadieri by Guissepe Verdi based on Schiller’s Sturm und Drang melodrama.
Frances Anne Kemble as Bianca, 1833 Fazio: A Tragedy, Reverend Henry Hart Milman (1821)
Mary Ann Paton Wood in the Role of Amina in La Sonnambula (1836);
William Brough as Count Rudolfo and Joseph Wood as Elvino in La Sonnambula (1836-9)
La Sonnambula, Vincenzo Bellini (1831)
Hear Maria Callas sing La Sonnambula.



Thomas Sully
American, born England, 1783–1872
Little Nell Asleep in the Curiosity Shop, 1841
Oil on canvas, 44 × 56 in. (111.8 × 142.2 cm)
John Frederick Lewis Collection, Rare Book Department, The Free Library of Philadelphia

The Paintings The Stories
Scenes from Robinson Crusoe series, c. 1856 The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe (1719)
Prison Scene from J. Fenimore Cooper’s “The Pilot”: Cecelia Howard and Katherine Plowden Arousing the Prisoner Edward Griffith from His Slumber, 1841 The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea, James Fenimore Cooper (1824)
Little Nell Asleep in the Curiosity Shop, 1841 The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens (1840)



Thomas Sully
American, born England, 1783–1872
Sarah Esther Hindman as Little Red Riding Hood, 1833
Oil on canvas, 52 1/2 × 32 1/2 in. (133.4 × 82.6 cm)
The Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 4680-10-0096:
Photo by Harry Connolly

The Paintings The Stories
Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire, 1843 “Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper” in Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals. Tales of Mother Goose, Charles Perrault (1697); “Cinderella” in Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Grimm (1812)
Sarah Esther Hindman as Little Red Riding Hood, 1833 Little Red Riding Hood” in Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals. Tales of Mother Goose , Charles Perrault (1697); “Little Red Cap in Children's and Household Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1812)

Thomas Sully: Painted Performance

February 8 – May 11, 2014

Sully's daughter Rosalie was the inspiration for Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire.

Thomas Sully
American, born England, 1783–1872
Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire, 1843
Oil on canvas, 50 × 58 in. (127 × 147.3 cm)
Dallas Museum of Art, gift of the Pauline Allen Gill Foundation, 2005.1

For refinement—genius—romance, we should go to Sully.

— Exhibition Review, Philadelphia, 1822

Born in 1783 in Horncastle, Lincolnshire England, Thomas Sully was the youngest of nine children of the actors Matthew and Sarah Chester Sully. The family immigrated to Richmond, Virginia in 1792 at the urging of Sarah’s brother, who managed theatres in Virginia and South Carolina. The peripatetic family moved to Norfolk, Virginia, and then Charleston, South Carolina, where Thomas received his first drawing lessons and, at 11, made his own debut on stage as a tumbler. Though his father arranged for him to work in an insurance office, the young artist showed much keener aptitude for art than clerking, and began instruction with the French-born artist Jean Belzons.

Sully became a tremendously prolific and influential artist, painting over 2,300 works over his 70-year career. His early commissions sprang from his family connections in the New York and Philadelphia theatre worlds, and he went on to paint lively portraits of the key figures in nineteenth-century American politics, business and culture. Throughout his career, Sully had a vigorous interest in creating subject or “fancy” pictures that staged scenes from popular theatre, literature, and fairy tales—often using family members as models. These latter paintings, now all but forgotten, served to offset dips in the economy and extended his visibility in a canny anticipation of “branding” and the power of celebrity. The subject pictures and portraits alike crackle with the artist’s innate sense of personality, drama, and movement.

Though famously sanguine of temperament, Sully led a life and career full of novelty and occasional drama—and not to mention mobility between Virginia, North Carolina, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Two years after the death of his brother Lawrence, he married Lawrence’s widow, Sarah Annis Sully, in 1806, but the couple were forced to move from Virginia, where marriage between former in-laws was illegal. Fortunately, New Yorker Thomas Abthorpe Cooper made a timely offer of a studio in the Park Theatre, portrait commissions of the theatre’s members, and a $1,000 advance. After the 1808 U.S. Embargo Act forbade foreign trade, limiting economic opportunity, Sully moved to Philadelphia, then the largest city in the U.S. and a crossroads of politics and culture that offered the best market for his work.

Sully became a US citizen in 1809, and promptly left for seven months’ study at London’s Antique School of the Royal Academy of Arts and was received by artists Benjamin West, William Beechey, John Hopper, and Sir Thomas Lawrence. Like many Victorian families, the Sullys suffered the early deaths of four of their nine children, which may well have contributed to the poignant combination of tenderness and foreboding that informs so many of the artist’s paintings of infants and children.

In 1833 Sully began an abiding friendship with British actress Frances Anne Kemble, who was perhaps his greatest inspiration and the subject of thirteen portraits. Kemble’s intervention may have been decisive in securing the young Queen Victoria’s agreement to sit for Sully’s 1838 portrait. The artist was soon embroiled in an early intellectual property lawsuit when the Society of the Sons of Saint George sued him for making a second version of this commissioned work, but the state bar association of Pennsylvania ruled in the artist’s favor, vindicating his ownership of the “design or invention” of the painting and therefore the right to make and exhibit a replica. Competing exhibitions ensued.

Thomas Sully died in Philadelphia 1872 at the age of eighty-nine, the master of unequalled movement, activity,
and theatricality in painting.

Thomas Sully: Painted Performance

February 8 – May 11, 2014

Frances Anne Kemble as Beatrice

Thomas Sully
American, born England, 1783–1872
Frances Anne Kemble as Beatrice, 1833
Oil on canvas, 30 × 25 in. (76.2 × 63.5 cm)
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Bequest of Henry C. Carey (The Carey Collection), 1879.8.24
Courtesy of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

The American Romantic painter Thomas Sully (1783–1872) had a lifelong connection to and love for the theatre, associations that were critical components of his artistic imagination. When viewed through the lens of theatre, Sully’s portraits and numerous subject pictures take on a striking coherence, complementing one another and revealing the breadth and unity of his artistic production. Throughout his career, Sully continued to paint leading actors of the day— both in and out of character.

The theatricality of Sully’s paintings extends beyond subject matter. It also imbues his method of working and the ways in which his sitters perform. Sully orchestrated drama, performance and a heightened sense of activity to great effect throughout his long career.

All portraiture is, in effect, a performance: the artist, sitter and viewer each plays a role in the successful creation of the portrait. This exhibition is no different. Come see and be part of the show starting on February 7th in the Cowden Exhibition Hall, when the curtain goes up.

Thomas Sully: Painted Performance is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) and curated by William Keyse Rudolph, The Marie and Hugh Halff Curator of American Art (formerly The Dudley J. Godfrey Jr. Curator of American Art and Decorative Arts, MAM), and Carol Eaton Soltis, Project Associate Curator, Center for American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A $5 special exhibition surcharge over general admission applies to view Thomas Sully: Painted Performance. This surcharge is waived for all Members and children 17 and under.