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Important American Paintings - September 2010
 
 
painting
 
Thomas Sully
(Born Great Britain, 1783–1872)
Abby Ann King Turner Van Pelt, 1832
Oil on canvas, 36 × 28 inches
Signed in monogram and dated at lower left: "TS 1832"
Provenance: By direct descent through the family of the sitters.
References: Edward Biddle and Mantle Fielding, The Life and Works of Thomas Sully (1783–1872) (Charleston, S.C.: Garnier & Co.), p. 301, no. 1826.

RS 6050


Note: this item is part of a pair with a portrait of the sitter's husband the Reverend Peter Van Pelt, Jr. attributed to John Neagle. The following discussion pertains to both works.

Thomas Sully was born in 1783 in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England, to a family of professional actors that immigrated to the United States in 1792. He attended school in New York until 1794, and then went to Richmond, Virginia, and after that to Charleston, South Carolina. Sully decided to become an artist like his older brother, the miniaturist Lawrence Sully (1769–1804), and first took lessons from his young schoolmate Charles Fraser (1782–1860). Sully was briefly apprenticed to his brother-in-law, a French émigré miniaturist named Jean Belzons who was active in Charleston from around 1792 to 1812. He met John Trumbull (1756–1843) in New York and in 1807 spent about three weeks studying with Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) in Boston. Later that year Sully moved to Philadelphia, where he resided for the rest of his life. In 1809 he embarked on a year-long trip to study art with Benjamin West (1738–1820) in London. There he absorbed the highly romanticized, painterly, and fluid style of portraiture practiced by Sir Henry Raeburn (1756–1823) and Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830). When Sully returned to Philadelphia in 1810, he rapidly established his reputation as one of the city’s foremost portraitists by painting its most prominent politicians, clergymen, and military heroes and, above all, its fashionable society women. He was made an honorary member of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1812, played an active role in the organization’s governance until 1831, and exhibited there regularly. This pair of pendant portraits represents the Reverend Peter Van Pelt, Jr., and his second wife Abby Ann King Turner. Van Pelt was born in Mount Holly, New Jersey, on September 20, 1798, the second son of the dentist and surgeon Dr. Peter Van Pelt and his wife Elizabeth Drayson Hall Van Pelt. The Van Pelts were descended from Dutch immigrants who had settled in Brooklyn, New York, during the 1680s. Van Pelt graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1818, was ordained a minister in the Episcopal Church, and accepted a position as rector of a church in Port Royal on Hilton Head, South Carolina, in 1824. Around 1825 Van Pelt married a woman named Catharine in Beaufort, South Carolina, by whom he had three children.1 He returned to Philadelphia to serve as assistant to the rector at the Church of the Epiphany, and worked as a professor of ancient languages at the church’s divinity school and at Burlington College in New Jersey. He was also secretary of the Board of Missions of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Van Pelt’s wife died on December 30, 1828, and was buried on January 2, 1829, in Old St. Paul’s churchyard in Philadelphia. Van Pelt married Abby Ann King Turner on April 26, 1832, in St. Stephen’s Church, Philadelphia, with the well-known Episcopal bishop William White (1748–1836) officiating.2 Born September 21, 1806, she had attended a women’s seminary run by the noted Philadelphia educator Daniel Jaudon, who in 1821 awarded her a certificate of merit when she completed her studies (that certificate is now in the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana).3 The book that she holds in Sully’s portrait refers to her education and refinement. The Van Pelts had four children. Van Pelt, who received his doctorate of divinity from St. John’s College in Maryland in 1856, died on August 20, 1873, and his wife died on June 5, 1885; they were both buried at Christ Church.4 Although the identical sizes and compositions of these portraits indicate that they were designed as pendants, they were not painted by the same artist. Thomas Sully, in his "Account of Pictures," recorded that he painted the impressive "kit-kat" portrait of Van Pelt’s second wife "Miss Turner" between April 12 and July 4, 1832, for a fee of $150.5 Her future mother-in-law Elizabeth Drayson Hall Van Pelt commissioned the portrait shortly before the wedding, but died on April 30, before Sully had completed it. Even though artists commonly painted companion portraits of couples to commemorate their marriages, Sully made no mention of having executed a portrait of Reverend Van Pelt. Moreover, the clergyman’s portrait lacks the painterly fluidity one would expect of Sully. It is likely that the portrait of Van Pelt was originally one of a pair of pendants that was painted around the time of his first marriage or return to Philadelphia by another artist. Stylistic characteristics suggest the authorship of Sully’s protégé and son-in-law John Neagle (1796–1865), who was noted for his portraits of clergymen.6 When Van Pelt remarried in 1832, his mother most likely commissioned Sully to paint the portrait of his second wife as a substitute for the now lost portrait of his first wife. This theory is supported by information supplied by the conservator who restored the frames. He noted that the frame on Van Pelt’s portrait was typical of a style popular in the early to mid-1820s, and that the gilding had been reconditioned at an early date, probably to match the newer frame on his wife’s portrait. The frame style was somewhat dated by 1832, so Sully must have made a special effort to find molding necessary to match the frame on the earlier picture. This portrait of the fashionably dressed Abby Ann King Turner Van Pelt is a rare, important, and outstanding example of Sully’s portraiture that dates from the period when he was at the height of his popularity and artistic talent. It must have been an important commission because it was the only "kit-kat" that he painted in 1832.

Notes

1. The birth and death dates of the children from Van Pelt’s first marriage are unknown, but the third child was baptized at St. Paul’s on May 15, 1828, so the marriage probably occurred around 1825.

2. White was chief minister of Christ Church in Philadelphia; Sully’s 1814 portrait of him is owned by Washington Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

3. A Chippendale carved mahogany drawing table that the sitter had inherited from her grandparents William Turner and Mary King was sold at Sotheby’s New York on September 26, 2008, lot. 9.

4. For biographical information on Van Pelt see University of Pennsylvania, Biographical Catalogue of the Matriculates of the College, 1749–1873 (Philadelphia: Avil Printing, 1894), p. 58.

5. This information is from "Account of Pictures by Thomas Sully," New York Public Library, Manuscript Division, which is not in Sully’s handwriting. Sully’s original manuscript "Account of Pictures" is owned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Edward Biddle and Mantle Fielding, The Life and Works of Thomas Sully (1783–1872) (Charleston, S.C.: Garnier & Company), p. 301, no. 1826, created some confusion by erroneously stating that the portrait had been painted in 1852. The term kit-kat (or kit-cat) is derived from the series of portraits that the English portraitist Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723) painted of members of a London political and literary group called the Kit-Kat Club between about 1702 and 1721. The life-size, nearly three-quarter-length format measured 36 x 28 inches, and included the sitter’s hands.

6. For Neagle see Robert W. Torchia, John Neagle, Philadelphia Portrait Painter [exh. cat., Historical Society of Pennsylvania] (Philadelphia, 1989). Unfortunately, Neagle’s "Blotter Book" (Historical Society of Pennsylvania), the manuscript in which he recorded the portraits he had painted, is devoid of entries from late January 1827 to January 1832. A more secure attribution to Neagle is frustrated by restorations in Van Pelt’s face.



  


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