Thomas Sully (English/American, 1783-1872)

Figure 1.--This Sully work is entitled, "Torn Hat". It is Sully's 9-year old son, Thomas Wilcocks Sully. Sullt painted it in 1820. It ws painted at a turning point in his career and is in in sharp contrast to the refiened portraits of luminaries like President Jackson, Lafayette, and Queen Victoria for which he is best known. It was a genre work. The hat in particular leads to some speculation. The beaten up hat is in sharp contrast to the rather angelically painted boy. Straw hats at the time were commonly made locally and contrast with the more refined hats that three decades later were being imported from South America (through Panama).

Thomas Sully is one of the most impoprtant American portratists. He painted at a time when most American artists were naive, untrained painters. Thus his images are very important. He painted individuals as diverse as Lafayette, President Andrew Jackson and a very young Queen Victoria. He is particularly noted for his full-lenghth portraits and sensitive depictions of women. He also painted many portraits with theatrical themes. We only know of one portrait of a boy at this time, but surely there must be more among his many portraits.


Thomas was born in Horncastle, Licolnshire, England in 1783 just at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. He was the youngest of nine children. His parents were actors, Matthew and Sarah Chester Sully. His father's brother-in-law was a theater manager in Virginia and South Carolina and incouraged Matthew to move ther family to America where there were few trained actors. The family in 1792 emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina in the newly independent United States. Thomas was 9 years old at the time. Sully attended school in New York. His mother died in 1794 and he returned to live with his family in Richmond. They then moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he performed on the stage with his parents and siblings.

Childhood Clothing


Thomas' older brother Larence, who had become a miniturist, helped develop his interest in art. Jus actual art education was informal. He first lessons came from a schoolmate--Charles Fraser. He was apprenticed to his brother-in-law, a French emigrée miniaturist--Jean Belzons. The two did not get along. After violently quarreling with Belzons 1799, he left Charleston and ame to live with Lawrence in Richmond. There he studied, improving his skills. Sully opened his first studio at Richmond in 1804. He commissioned John Trumbull to paint a portrait of his wife so that he might observe the artist's technique. Sully worked briefly with Gilbert Stuart in Boston, studying face-painting for 3 weeks (1807). Stuart incouraged him. He spent a year (1809-10) in England and worked with Benjamin West and Sir Thomas Lawrence. Lawrence in particular greatly influence his work. His fluid style certainly was developed during this period. Lawrence was one of the great British portraitists.


After returning from England, Sully began working in Philadelphia where he was to remain fgor the rest of his life. He achieved a reputation for full-length portraits. His willingness to improve on a sitter's features helped with his rising popularity. With the death of Gilbert Stuart, he became the leading American portratist of his day. Sully's association with the theater through his pareants led to his many portraits and depictions of the stage and actors. One of his first portraits in fact was of the English actor Thomas Cooper. Sully was commissioned in the 1830s and 40s by the Edward L. Carey, a wealthy Philadelphia bookseller and publisher, to do a number of paintings based on important Shakespearean characters. Sully painted some important figures of the day, including President Andrew Jackson, Lafayette, and a Young Queen Victoria--for whom he had to wait 5 months for a sitting. His sensitive portraits of women are considered some of his best work.

Personal Life

Sully's brothern Lawrence died in September 1804. Despite the fact that he was the youngest brother, he assumed financial responsibility for the family. He eventually married his brother's widow Sarah.


Sully is best known for his portraits. He studied under Gilbert Stuart, Nenjamin West, and Thomas Lawrence--quite an imprwesive group. He became the most ascclsimed portratist of his day. He painted John Quincey Adams just before he became president (1824). This made a name for him and he soon received lucrative commions, including some of the most importnt individuals of antebellum America. asmp As a result, is work is of great historical importance. At the time, the Marquis de Lafayette was visiting ASnerica. He even painted a young Queen Vitoria on a trip to England (1837–38). He alsdo painted Thomas Jefferson. There are fewer portraits of children, but the ones painted before 1840 provide an importast recird of how children dressed in the years before photography.


Barratt, Carrie Rebora. Queen Victoria and Thomas Sully (Princton University Press, 2000) ISBN: 0-691-07034-2, 224 pp. 15 color plates, 34 halftones.

Biddle, Edward, and Mantle Fielding. The Life and Works of Thomas Sully. Charleston, SC: Garnier, 1969.

Fabian, Monroe H.Mr. Sully, Portrait Painter: The Works of Thomas Sully (1783-1872).Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1983.


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Created: April 23, 2002
Last updated: 9:53 PM 5/23/2010