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Thomas Sully

 (1783 - 1872)
Thomas Sully was active/lived in Pennsylvania / England.  Thomas Sully is known for portrait, historical, and landscape painting.

Thomas Sully

    SUL-lee  speaker-click to hear pronunciation  click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Thomas Sully
A teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Thomas Sully became one of the foremost early 19th-century portrait painters, known for painting pretty faces on his subjects, often disregarding reality.

He was the son of English actors and was born in Horncastle, Lincolnshire. He came to Philadelphia in 1792 when he was nine years old. Sully showed early drawing talent and first studied with his older brother, Lawrence, a miniature painter.  To earn money, he tried unsuccessfully to have a career in insurance but then turned full time to painting and was able to be critiqued by Gilbert Stuart in Boston.  He embraced Stuart's interest in classical styles, but favored pretty colors and opaque and glossy surfaces. Like Stuart, his subjects appear heroic and seem to have a sense of purpose.

In 1801, he moved with Lawrence's family to Virginia, but Lawrence died, so Thomas cared for the family and married the widow two years later.  In 1808, accepting an attractive offer from a patron, he moved to Philadelphia for the remainder of his life excepting the new two years when a syndicate of patrons sent him to England to paint and study.  He returned with a copy of an Old Master painting for each patron.

His twenty-three year old daughter, Blanch, accompanied him to England where he did a portrait of Queen Victoria, a commission filled from a request through the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of the Sons of Saint George.  Blanch substituted for the Queen in many of the sittings, and even wore the British crown, the only American ever to have this distinction.  She also modeled in Victoria's state robes.  The Queen was extremely pleased with the portrait, which was finished in Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, Sully shared a studio with Charles Bird King, portrait painter, and taught at the Academy.

Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art

Biography from The Johnson Collection
The premier American portraitist of his day, Thomas Sully spent his formative years in Charleston, South Carolina. His youthful interest in art was nurtured by lessons from his brother-in-law, the French miniaturist Jean Belzons, and by the shared enthusiasm of his schoolmate Charles Fraser. Sully began to paint portraits professionally in 1801 and, from that time until his death, kept a detailed ledger of his sitters as well as his "fancy" paintings drawn from history and romance, an accounting that climbed to 2,631 works. While the record of Sully's formal training is rather sketchy, he is said to have studied "face painting" with Gilbert Stuart in Boston prior to taking up residence in Philadelphia. In 1809, he departed for England for a period of study with Benjamin West, president of London's Royal Academy. Though West encouraged him to continue a career as a portrait artist, it was the warmly colored and lavishly detailed work of Sir Thomas Lawrence which made the lasting impression upon Sully.

Upon his return to the United States in 1810, Sully established a home and studio in Philadephia; from there, he made extensive excursions to fulfill commissions, often including the Deep South on his itinerary. His 1824 portrait of John Quincy Adams heralded the rise of romanticism and, from that time forward, Sully was "the preferred painter of the great … those of great wealth, great beauty or great renown." His sitters included Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, James Madison, Andrew Jackson and Rembrandt Peale. In 1837, Sully returned to England to paint Queen Victoria under commission from the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of the Sons of St. George, waiting five months to be granted a first sitting with the young monarch. Adored by his subjects for his lush coloration and elegant anatomical compositions, Sully was unapologetically honest about his flattering depictions. "From long experience I know that resemblance in a portrait is essential; but no fault will be found with the artist, (at least by the sitter,) if he improve the appearance."

One of Sully's "fancy" paintings, Mother and Child was commissioned by Colonel James A. Stevens for the art collection he installed aboard the Albany, an elegant steamer which made round trip runs up the Hudson from New York to Albany. Sully's admiration for the Italian Renaissance artist Correggio can be seen not only in Mother and Child's compositional format and "pearly tint," but also in the subtle juxtaposition of innocence and experience, reminiscent of Correggio's mythic canvases featuring chaste, half-clad feminine beauties attended by playful cupids.

Following West's example, Sully was quite nurturing of younger artists and enjoyed a long association with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. One of his most important legacies is a small book he authored, Hints to Young Painters, and the Practice of Portrait-Painting, which was circulated in manuscript form during his lifetime and published after his death. Sully's hints on techniques of medium and support, preparing the canvas, ordering the palette, mixing colors and varnishing a finished work would long influence portrait artists in the South, notably William Edward West, James DeVeaux and William Harrison Scarborough. Sully's portraits are held in the collections of this country's leading institutions, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Portrait Gallery and the White House Historical Association.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery
THOMAS SULLY (1783-1872)

Born in England to actor parents, Thomas Sully began his artistic career painting miniatures in Charleston, South Carolina. He later received advice from such established artists as Henry Benbridge, John Trumbull and Gilbert Stuart before returning to England for a year of study with Sir Thomas Lawrence and others. Sully settled in Philadelphia in 1810, where he soon established himself as America's leading portraitist, a reputation he maintained for more than fifty years.

Sully was to American art what Lawrence was in England, the creator of a romantic style of portraiture--elegant, refined, reflective and immensely popular. Indeed, he was arguably the most admired portraitist of the Romantic era in the United States. Over the course of his long career, Sully produced over twenty-six hundred works, approximately two thousand of which were portraits. The remainder were landscapes, genre and thematic figurative works Sully termed "fancy pictures," paintings intended for the decoration of the drawing rooms and parlors of his wealthy clients. A sleeping baby, with or without its mother, was one of the artist's favorite "fancy" subjects.

Nancy Rivard Shaw, 1999© Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc.


Fabian, Monroe, H. "Mr. Sully, Portrait Painter: The Works of Thomas Sully (1783-1872)". Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution, 1983).

"Thomas Sully, 1783-1872". Farmville, Virginia: Longwood College, 1973.

Tuckerman, Henry T. "Book of the Artists". 1867.

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About  Thomas Sully

Born:  1783 - Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England
Died:   1872 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Known for:  portrait, historical, and landscape painting

Essays referring to
Thomas Sully

San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915