Who Was Thomas Sully?
Thomas Sully: Painted Performance
February 8 – May 11, 2014
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,