More about Thomas Sully

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Thomas Sully painted several US Presidents, the Queen of the world’s greatest empire, and many of the biggest celebrities of his day. Not bad for a kid who started out doing acrobatics in a theater.

Sully was born in England, but moved to America with his theatrical family where he started his career as a tumbler. While studying to be an insurance broker, Sully’s mentor noticed that, “although Thomas was very industrious in multiplying figures, they were mostly of men and women, and the boy should be a painter.” Just remember kids, never let your teacher tell you doodling in your notebook won’t get you anywhere.

At the tender age of 18, Sully quickly rose to be one of the most coveted portraitists of the 19th Century, largely because of his knack for shamelessly flattering wealthy women. The popular women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, reported, “Sully, as all the world knows, paints exquisitely beautiful portraits of ladies...His praise is in all the parlours.”

The praise spread all the way to the parlors of Great Britain, where Sully was commissioned to paint the teenaged Queen Victoria just after her 1838 coronation. Victoria posed for dozens of portraits that year, but Sully was one of her favorite artists. She noted their meeting in her diary and for his part, Sully wrote, “I should be gratified if I were able to give an idea of the sweet tone of voice, and gentle manner of Queen Victoria!” Victoria permitted Sully to pose her however he wanted (uncommon for a woman of her status), and he painted her looking over her shoulder, making direct eye contact with the viewer (considered an erotically informal gesture at the time). Sadly, Sully’s personal copy of the portrait was destroyed in the burning of Columbia South Carolina during the American Civil War.  

Sully got on with the ladies off the canvas as well, particularly his brother’s wife Sarah. When his brother died, Sully moved in to “take care of” the attractive young widow, but took his duties a little too seriously. He and Sarah married, but had to flee Virginia for Philadelphia to avoid a scandal. They settled (appropriately) in the “city of brotherly love,” and had nine children.

Besides Queen Victoria and a lot of pretty ladies, Sully painted Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette, and presidents Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Sully's portrait of Jackson lives on, for at least a few more years, on the $20.  Sully died at the great age of 89, “loved by all who know him.”



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Here is what Wikipedia says about Thomas Sully

Thomas Sully (June 19, 1783 – November 5, 1872) was an American portrait painter. Born in Great Britain, he lived most of his life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He painted in the style of Thomas Lawrence. His subjects included national political leaders such as United States presidents: Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson, Revolutionary War hero General Marquis de Lafayette, and many leading musicians and composers. In addition to portraits of wealthy patrons, he painted landscapes and historical pieces such as the 1819 The Passage of the Delaware. His work was adapted for use on United States coinage.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Thomas Sully