Artist
Thomas Sully
American artist

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Thomas Sully
American artist
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Birth Date

June 19, 1793

Death Date

November 05, 1872

gstecyk's picture

Contributor

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.”

 

Sources

Sources

  1. Tom Strini, “Thomas Sully: Portraiture, Fancy, Theatricality and Commerce in Art in 19th-Century America,” October 13, 2013, http://striniwrites.blogspot.com/2013/10/thomas-sully-portraiture-fancy.....
  2. Shauna L. Hayed, “Sully, Thomas,” Pennsylvania Center for the Book, accessed February 9, 2017, http://pabook2.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/bios/Sully__Thomas.html.
  3. “Thomas Sully,” accessed February 9, 2017, http://www.worcesterart.org/collection/Early_American/Artists/sully/biog....
  4. Carrie Rebora Barratt, “Thomas Sully (1783-1873) and Queen Victoria,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tsly/hd_tsly.htm.
  5. Meredith Henne Baker, The Richmond Theater Fire of 1811 (Word Press, 2017), originally updated March 31, 2015, http://www.theaterfirebook.com/2015/03/a-9-day-governor-famous-painter-t....

Featured Content

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 presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, and 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 Passage of the Delaware. His work was adapted for use on United States coinage.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Thomas Sully.