Thomas Sully arrived on the shores of America with his parents and siblings in 1792. The Sullys were an English theatrical family in search of better opportunity in America, which would ultimately amply reward their energetic and ambitious young son. By 1811, when the present canvas as painted, Sully was on the verge of establishing himself as an up-and-coming young portraitist in Philadelphia with a growing family and a growing practice.
In 1834, William Dunlap, the first American art historian, introduced the readers of A History of the Rise and Progress of The Arts of Design in the United States to Thomas Sully, a “gentleman . . . who has long stood at the head of his profession as a portrait painter, and whose designs, in fancy subjects, all partake of the elegant correctness of his character and the rich store of knowledge he has accumulated” (vol. II, part 1, p. 101). Dunlap’s characterization of Sully occurred a little before mid-point in Sully’s long career, but, as in so many other instances, Dunlap’s contemporary evaluation was insightful and accurate. It illuminates Sully for the modern viewer as handily as it did for the reader of 1834.
Thomas Sully’s career in art spanned seven decades, stretching from the post-colonial era of Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart to the post-Civil War era, when the ready availability of photographic likenesses dramatically redefined and reduced the role of the portrait artist in American society. Sully was a sober, steady, and hardworking artist, devoted to his wife, Sarah, and his nine children, as well as to a larger extended family. After a nomadic beginning, he settled in Philadelphia and became forever associated with that city.
Thomas Sully was born in England to parents in the theater. As an infant, he was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, while his parents toured. In 1792, the Sully family, parents and nine children, emigrated to America in pursuit of greater opportunity for their theatrical enterprises. Once in America, the family continued to move around, but remained close-knit and mutually supportive. Sully, at one point, appeared as part of an acrobatic act with two of his brothers. When it came time to choose a profession, Thomas was at first placed in the office of an insurance broker in Charleston, South Carolina, but it was immediately apparent that his talents lay elsewhere. He trained as a painter of miniatures, tutored by Mr. Belzons, a French artist who was also his brother-in-law, having married one of his sisters. He set up on his own, and met with sufficient success to prepare, in 1804, to return to England for further training. Before he could leave, he received news of the death of his older brother and mentor, Lawrence, who had also been a painter of miniatures. For Sully, family always came first, and he moved to Richmond to join the household and assume financial responsibility for his late brother’s widow and three daughters. This arrangement worked out so well that, in 1806, Sully married Sarah Annis Sully, his erstwhile sister-in-law, and the family moved to New York, where Sully had been offered a painting studio at the Park Theater by a theater-manager friend. Sully struggled to find a firm footing for his career as a painter, learning from New York’s two leading portrait painters of the time, John Wesley Jarvis and John Trumbull. He traveled to Boston, to visit Gilbert Stuart and solicit his advice. Stuart encouraged him to “keep what you have got, and get as much as you can” (Dunlap, vol. II, p. 115).
In 1807, Sully moved his family to Philadelphia, where he quickly established himself with a successful offer to paint portraits at discounted fees. In 1809, shortly after becoming an American citizen, Sully returned again to England, having made financial arrangements for his wife and (by then) six children, his brother’s three daughters, and three babies of his own. In England, Sully first visited the aged grandmother who had tended him in infancy, and then proceeded to London, where he shared lodgings with the American painter, Charles Bird King. Armed with a letter of introduction from Charles Willson Peale, Sully called on Benjamin West. West was greatly impressed by Sully’s innate artistic abilites and urged him to improve his technique by studying the bone structure of the human head. Sully made intensive use of his time in England, studying with West, frequenting galleries, and visiting distinguished private art collections. He returned to Philadelphia in 1810 where he painted, with good grace and with all the considerable talent and skill he had at his disposal, whatever anyone would pay him for. In the course of his long career, Sully painted over twenty-six hundred works, of which approximately two thousand were portraits. The remainder were genre and theme canvases which Sully described as “fancy pictures.”