Case Study    

Thomas Sully's

"Portrait of George Washington"

Before Treatment

Biographical History:

Thomas Sully
    Early Years: "On the Move"
Thomas Sully was born in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England on June 19, 1783. (1) His parents, Mathew and Sarah Sully, were both actors who traveled extensively. In 1792, his parents and eight brothers and sisters emigrated to the United States at the urging of Mathew's brother-in-law who managed several theaters in Virginia and South Carolina. The young Sully was always more interested in drawing than theater work. Sarah Sully died the following year and the family moved first to Richmond and then to Norfolk, where Thomas sold small portraits and miniatures for twelve dollars each. After a short time, the family moved again, this time to Charleston.
After some theater work in Charleston, Thomas Sully moved to Richmond to live with his older brother, Lawrence on September 27, 1799, the date recorded in a meticulous journal he kept throughout his life. (2) Five years later, Lawrence died, and Thomas remained in the household to care for his brother's widow Sarah, and her three children. In 1806, Thomas and Sarah decided to marry. At the time, it was illegal in the Commonwealth of Virginia for a man to marry his brother's widow, so the couple traveled to Warrington, North Carolina to obtain their marriage license.
In 1807, Sully moved to New York for a short time before taking residence in Hartford, Connecticut. This was a critical year in his career for he left Hartford to work with Gilbert Stuart in Boston. Sully painted a portrait for Stuart solely to obtain his criticism and direction. Stuart is recorded as advising the young Sully, "Keep what you have got, and get as much as you can." (3) He was probably advised to paint copies of master works, and when he returned to Hartford, he completed a small copy of Stuart's full-length "Portrait of George Washington." After a brief stay in New York, where he trained with John Trumbull, Thomas and his family moved to Philadelphia on December 5, 1807. At that time, Philadelphia was the largest city in America and offered a robust clientele for portrait commissions.
Sully also kept a detailed register where he recorded each commission, sitter, price and even the starting and completion dates, a veritable treasure for future art historians. (4) Within his first year in Philadelphia, he records that he completed 63 paintings. He was now earning a reputation as one of Philadelphia's finest portrait artists. The below left image represents an early watercolor-on-ivory miniature and measures only H. 2 3/8" X W. 1 1/4." The right image is a portrait of his wife. While the portrait's tonal qualities are quite warm, there are noticeable drawing difficulties. Note the rather short distance between the shoulder and elbow of the proper left arm as compared to the distance between the elbow and wrist.

"Portrait of Rebecca Smith" 1806
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, New York

"Portrait of Sarah Sully " 1808
The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
   London: "Benjamin West"
Sully realized that study abroad in London would further his abilities and career. He asked several patrons to commission copies of paintings for an advanced fee of $200 each. After five of his clients signed on, Thomas Sully departed for London on June 15, 1809, leaving his wife and six children behind. He carried with him a letter of introduction to Benjamin West written by Charles Wilson Peale. The letter stated, "The Gentleman who will present this is an Artist of considerable merrit, though I believe I may say, self-taught...Mr. Sully visits London with an intention to improve himself in the knowledge of an Art which he is whooly devoted to, and the sight of the labours of your Pensil will I am sure be a high gratification to him." (5)
West understood Sully's immature talent and suggested further study of the human skeletal structure. For the first time, he drew from a live and presumably nude model. West also had him carry out numerous copies of West's own paintings as well as other works by Correggio, Raphael, Rembrandt and Sir Joshua Reynolds. After an eight-month period, Thomas Sully returned to America on April 16, 1810.

Thomas Sully after Rembrandt
Private Collection

Rembrandt "Young Girl at a Window" 1645
Dulwich College Picture Gallery
London, England
  Philadelphia: "Mid-Career"
Sully was a refined artist when he returned to Philadelphia. He and his family moved into a house at 11 South Fifth Street. He lived at this residence for 62 years, in contrast to his earlier peripatetic lifestyle. His improved skills were well noted, and he was able to procure 43 commissions by the end of his first eight months in Philadelphia. Even Charles Wilson Peale noted, "I find he is considerably mended in his drawing--some of his pictures are well coloured."(6)
Sully's growing reputation brought a steady flow of commissions. Monroe Fabian properly notes, "With the deaths of Charles Wilson Peale in 1827 and Gilbert Stuart in 1828, there would be few in a position to challenge Sully's popularity and preeminence in his field."(7) Major national figures sought his abilities. In 1821, he visited Thomas Jefferson in Monticello to execute a study for a full-length portrait requested by the United States Military Academy at West Point. In the same year he sold a portrait of his son, pictured below, now one of his most famous paintings.

"Portrait of Thomas Jefferson" 1821
United States Military Academy
West Point, New York

"Portrait of Thomas Wilcox Sully" 1820
The Museum of Fine Arts
Boston, Massachusetts

London: "In Court"
Sully had fond memories of his first trip to London. It marked a turning point in his career and he longed to return. To fund the trip, several of his patrons provided advances on future paintings. The Society of the Sons of Saint George, an association of British expatriates living in Philadelphia, offered $1,000, a considerable sum at that time, for a full-length portrait of the new Queen of England, Victoria, who had come to the throne in June, 1837. Sully, accompanied by his daughter Blanche, left for London on October 10, 1837.
Sully waited until March, 1838 for his first sitting with the Queen. He had several subsequent sittings where he made numerous sketches. When he returned to Philadelphia, he began to paint the portrait for the Society of the Sons of Saint George. He also executed one for himself. Much to his surprise, the Society took him to court claiming they owned the rights to the image. This became America's first legal case concerning artistic copyright infringement. The Court of Philadelphia decided that the Society held ownership to their portrait, while Sully retained title to the image.
In 1844, Sully gave his version to the Saint Andrew's Society in Charleston, South Carolina. During the Civil War, the portrait was stored in a warehouse in Columbia, South Carolina for "safekeeping." It was burned and destroyed in 1865. The Saint George version is currently owned by a private collector. (8)

"Queen Victoria" 1838
Private Collection

"Study for Queen Victoria" 1838
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, New York


Philadelphia: "Late Career"
The volume of Thomas Sully's work is staggering. In his 71-year career, he completed more than 2,600 paintings, of which more than 2,000 were portraits. Dignitaries, politicians and society's elite all sat before him. He is a link between the days of Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart and Copley, and the generation of John Singer Sargent. Thomas Sully died at his Fifth Street home on November 5, 1872. He was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery on the Schuylkill River.

"Andrew Jackson" 1845
National Gallery of Art
Washington, D.C.

"Self-Portrait" 1850
Private Collection
(1) Biographical information from Monroe H. Fabian, Mr. Sully, Portrait Painter. An exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, June 3 to September 5, 1983. (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. 1983.)
(2) Sully's Journal, in two volumes, is in the possession of a descendant of Thomas Sully. The volumes cover the years from 1792 to 1846. A third volume has not survived.
(3) William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (New York, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1969) vol. 2, 114-115.
(4) Thomas Sully, Account of Pictures. Original is in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Referred to as, The Register. Entries date from 1801-1871.
(5) Fabian, 12.
(6) Fabian, 13. Originally from a letter from Charles Wilson Peale to his son, Rembrandt Peale, dated July 8, 1810.
(7) Fabian, 14.
(8) Information on the two full-length versions from Carrie Rebora Barratt. Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York. "Thomas Sully (1783-1872) and Queen Victoria." (accessed 3 Dec. 2006).
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