Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Artist Thomas Sully is best known for his portraiture.
Thomas Sully led a long, extraordinary life. He was born on June 8, 1783, in Horncastle, Lincolnshire England. Sully changed the profession of art. Known as being a Patriarch to the field of painting, Sully had many great accomplishments including painting a portrait of Queen Victoria (1838), painting the crossing of Washington and his troops across the Delaware River (1818), being elected as the president of the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, and more. On November 5, 1872, Sully died. According to the Public Ledger, “Mr. Sully was loved by all who knew him, and he died at a good old age full of years and honor.”
On June 19, 1783, an “American Patriarch of Painting” was born. Thomas Sully was born in Horncastle, Lincolnshire England, to Sarah and Matthew Sully, a family of four brothers, and five sisters. In 1792, after being urged by Sarah’s brother, Thomas Wade West, the Sullys sailed to America. Thomas Sully took a job as an apprentice to an insurance broker. According to the authors of Life and Works of Thomas Sully, Edward Biddle and Mantle Fielding, the insurance broker criticized that “although Thomas was very industrious in multiplying figures, they were mostly of men and women, and the boy should be a painter.” Thomas Sully was influenced by his brother Lawrence and a miniature painter known as Charles Frasier. They were both contributors to Sully's decision to have a career as a painter. Because of his career, Sully moved to Richmond, Virginia, and he began his first attempt at painting. He painted a miniature of his other brother Chester. This painting was valued at fifteen dollars, and by the end of the year Thomas had painted ten miniatures that had a combined total of one-hundred and sixty dollars. This was a very cheap price for paintings to be sold at; Sully did not receive a very big income in the beginning of his career. This illustrates how invested Sully was in his paintings as an art, rather than a profession. Unfortunately, in the early stages of his profession, his brother Lawrence passed away. He decided to move into Lawrence’s house and take care of his wife and children. Lawrence’s wife, Sarah Annis Sully, and Sully ended up getting married on June 27, 1806. Thomas Sully and Sarah Annis moved their family from city to city, and they eventually settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sully obtained a painting room, located just North of Independence Hall. He shared the room with another painter of miniatures, Benjamin Trott. On May 17, 1809, Thomas Sully became a citizen of the United States. Thomas Sully began to receive a small sum of money for the portraits he was painting. Fifty dollars was his regular selling price, but the portraits much larger in size were valued at eighty dollars. Sully wanted to further his knowledge in art, so he decided to travel to London and study under the famous artist Benjamin West. He created a few paintings after old masters, and then he returned to the United States and found out that his infant son, Thomas, had passed away. In 1811, Sully taught his first painting lessons. Sully did not begin asking for payment for these painting tutoring lessons until September 1, 1813. During the following years, Sully created numerous portraits, including George Fredrick Cooke as Richard III (1811), which is owned by the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts; Benjamin Rush (1814). He also painted a portrait of Commander Decatur (1814). Sully was most successful in his paintings of women. Art critic Henry T. Tuckerman stated, “His organization fits him to sympathize with the fair and lovely rather than grand or comic. Sully’s forte is graceful.” The next few years proved to be equally productive. Sully is best known as being a portraitist. However, throughout his career, Sully created many more works besides portraits. Some of these included certificates for the Washington Benevolent Society, Agriculturist Society, diplomas for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Wig Society of Princeton University, and for publisher John Binns. In 1818, Sully contracted with the North Carolina legislature to depict the scene of Washington crossing the Delaware. A year later, the work was completed. However, the painting was too large (17 x 12 feet), and Sully had to dispose of it. In 1819, Thomas Sully formed a partnership with James S. Earle in Philadelphia. They established a gallery that featured a number of artists, old masters, tapestries, and chair covers. After that, Sully became a member of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, a member of the National Academy of Design in New York, and a member of the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. In the following years, Sully traveled to many cities searching for new commissions, and he stopped at West Point, where his son Alfred was a cadet. Sully was anxious to return to England, and in 1837, he went with his daughter Blanche. Sully was asked to paint a portrait of Queen Victoria. He was very eager to do this, and by the end of his visit, Sully had created one study and three portraits of Queen Victoria. While in London, Sully was named a temporary member of the Garrick Club. He then traveled to France, where he was attracted to many works by artists such as Hippolyte Paul Delaroche, Peter Paul Rubens, and Horace Vernet in the Louvre Museum. Sully and his daughter returned to Philadelphia in September of the same year. In February 1842, Thomas Sully was elected president of the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Sully was notified of this accomplishment through a letter, and he politely turned the offer down. Sully dominated the field of portraiture until the 1850s. At this time the younger generation started to paint in a more realistic style, which was the style that was becoming popular. Sully began to write a book in 1851 on how to paint, but it wasn’t published until 1871. On July 15, 1867, Sarah Annis Sully passed away. Because of her death, the Pennsylvania Academy voted he should receive an annual stipend of $1000 per year. For a few years after that, Sully worked very hard in his studio. His final works consisted of copies of famous pieces. His final portrait was of Robert M. Lindsey. It took him thirteen days, and on October 31, 1871, Thomas Sully had completed this last portrait. Sully wrote in his journal that he started a portrait of Michelangelo (from a print), but no date of completion was ever noted. On November 5, 1872, when newspapers were all discussing the re-election of Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Sully passed away. According to Monroe Fabian, the author of Mr. Sully Portrait Painter, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “Mr. Sully certainly ranked as one of the best American painters, and to this, may be added that he was a musician of no small ability.” The day after Thomas Sully’s death, the Public Ledger printed his obituary, stating, “Mr. Sully was remarkable for his polished, gentleman like manners, and his great power of fascination. He was honored and loved by all who knew him, and he died at a good old age full of years and honor.” Thomas Sully’s funeral was held on November 9, 1872, in his treasured painting room. He was moved and buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, on the east bank of the Schuylkill River. According to Monroe Fabian, he was “laid to rest with those of his wife and children.”
Mrs. Edward Hudson, Detroit Institute of Art, 1814.
Torn Hat, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1820.
Thomas Alston, National Gallery of Art, 1826.
Walsch Sisters, Speed Art Museum, 1834-8135.
The Baird Children, Hollis Taggart Galleries, 1836-1845.
Queen Victoria, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1838.
Alfred Sully, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 1839.
The Reverend Thomas Stockton, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 1843.
Coleman Sisters, National Gallery of Art, 1844.
Portrait of Patrick Henry, Virginia Historical Society, 1851.
Thomas Jefferson, American Philosophical Society, Philosophical Hall, Philadelphia, 1856.
Rembrandt Peale, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 1859.
Biddle, Edward, and Fielding, Mantle. Life and Works of Thomas Sully. Lancaster: Wickersham P, 1921.
Fabian, Monroe H. Mr. Sully, Portrait Painter. Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1983.