Thomas Sully

(American born England, 1783 - 1872)

Thomas Sully was one of the most skilled and prolific portrait painters in America in the nineteenth century. He emigrated from England in 1792 with his actor-parents, who came to the United States under the sponsorship of his father's brother-in-law, a theater manager. Sully grew up in cities all along the East Coast, but he received drawing instruction at the Reverend Robert Smith’s school in Charleston, South Carolina, where he also studied with his brother-in-law, the French-born miniaturist and drawing teacher, Jean Belzons (active in the United States 1794-1812). Sully began painting professionally with his brother Lawrence Sully (1769-1804) in both Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia. Sully went to Boston to visit the famous painter Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) in 1807, and settled permanently in Philadelphia in 1808, where his portrait practice flourished. Sully entered into an agreement with some prominent local citizens in 1809 that enabled him to travel to England and study in London, where he benefited from the advice of Sir William Beechey (1753-1839), Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), and Benjamin West (1738-1820), and familiarized himself with collections of old master paintings. When Sully returned to Philadelphia in 1810 he quickly set about establishing his future reputation as one of America's foremost portraitists by painting a number of full-length commissions, beginning in 1811 with George Frederick Cooke in the Role of Richard III. In 1812, one year after the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts acquired the portrait, Sully was elected to an honorary membership in the organization, in which he played an active role until resigning from its board of directors in 1831. From 1819 to at least 1846 he and his partner, the restorer and frame maker James S. Earle, ran a successful commercial art gallery. Sully's artistic activity was not confined to Philadelphia, and throughout his long career he made numerous protracted trips to Washington, Baltimore, Boston, New York, and West Point. At the height of his fame in 1837 a Philadelphia association of British expatriates called the Society of the Sons of St. George sent him to England to paint a full-length portrait of the recently crowned Queen Victoria. Sully had many pupils, most notable among them Charles Robert Leslie, John Neagle, and Jacob Eichholtz; he also trained several of his children to become competent artists. In 1851 he prepared a short practical guide for portraitists entitled Hints to Young Painters and the Process of Portrait Painting, which was revised in 1871 and published two years later. Sully painted over 2,000 portraits during his long career. He was America's foremost exponent of the highly romanticized, painterly, and fluid style of portraiture practiced by the two contemporary British artists he had most admired during his year of study in England, Sir Henry Raeburn and Sir Thomas Lawrence. Although he painted many of the most prominent politicians, clergymen, and military heroes of his era, Sully's fame rests mainly on his exaggeratedly elegant and idealized portraits of fashionable society women, and, to a lesser extent, his sentimental group portraits of children and "fancy pictures." Sully’s style appealed greatly to the elite social stratum from which he drew his patrons, and earned him the status of being the most successful American portrait painter following the death of Gilbert Stuart in 1826, until his gradual decline in the 1850s.