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Portrait of Esther Fortune Warren and Her Daughter Hester
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More about Portrait of Esther Fortune Warren and Her Daughter Hester

wbillingsley's picture

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So Thomas Sully put a giant bald spot on on the side of this lady’s head, and no one noticed.

And I very much mean that no one noticed, because not only does no one talk about the bald spot but they go so far as to say this is one of his better pictures. It was painted at the beginning of Thomas Sully’s career, the artist was the son of two actors and was getting his own artistic career going by painting the wealthy friends of his parents. Apparently they were absolutely fine with the fact that he was still trying to get hairlines right. He compensated for his lack of experience by charging twenty dollars less than what people would normally charge for portraits at the time. However, it seems this was enough kick things off because he went on to paint the portrait of Andrew Jackson that is currently used for the twenty dollar bill.

The weirdness of this piece’s reception continues however. This picture is one part in a pair of portraits commissioned by William Warren, the subject’s husband. The thing is that some people prefer this piece over his. They specifically note its “richer colors” and say that it’s “more romantic.” Now to be fair, Mr. Warren is no looker, but at least his baldness is anatomically correct. Additionally, these opinions aren't just coming from random people on the internet, but rather these are the official statements of the very museum that houses both these portraits, The San Diego Museum of Art. One could argue, too, that Esther might have looked exactly like this, but that is unlikely. As again, she was an actress with a profitable performance company, and the late 18th century was not known for their progressive perspectives on beauty.

A possible reason this weird screw up went unnoticed through history is the nature of art criticism in the 19th century. With the rise of the New World, art was no longer being made exclusively for the church and state. As with art on the the internet today, this meant that there was a surplus of freelance pieces in circulation, and undoubtedly this piece would have been one of them. In all actuality though, this is incredibly encouraging as it just goes to show that even if you screw up in a major way, you still have a good chance of one day painting the president.

Sources

Sources

  1. Hart, Charles “A Register of portraits painted by Thomas Sully, 1801-1871” Philidelphia 1909 https://archive.org/details/registerofportra00hart/page/n8
  2. Kuspit, Donald “Art Criticism In The 19th Century, The growth of power and influence” Encyclopedia Bitanica 2019 https://www.britannica.com/art/art-criticism/Art-criticism-in-the-18th-c...
  3. “Portrait of William Warren” San Diego Museum of Art 06/21/2019 http://collection.sdmart.org/Obj2562?sid=278&x=21224&port=2888
  4. Strini Tom “Thomas Sully: Portraiture, Fancy, Theatricality and Commerce in Art in 19th-Century America” Tom Strini Writes 06/21/2019 https://striniwrites.blogspot.com/2013/10/thomas-sully-portraiture-fancy...