Thomas Sully

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About this artist

Thomas Sully dominated the field of portraiture in Philadelphia during the romantic period. In 1792 he came with his parents, who were actors, to this country, where they eventually settled in Charleston, South Carolina. Showing artistic abilities at a very early age, Sully received instruction from his brother-in-law, a French miniature painter, Jean Belzons (active eighteenth century), and in Norfolk, Virginia, from his brother Lawrence Sully (1769-1804), also a miniature painter.

Thomas Sully opened his own studio in Richmond in 1803. He married his brother’s widow in 1806. In 1807 he visited GILBERT STUART in Boston and received some advice. Between 1804 and 1808 he painted in a number of cities before settling in Philadelphia, which would become his permanent home, although he continued to travel to other cities to execute portraits. In 1809 he went to London, where he spent nine months studying with BENJAMIN WEST. When he returned to Philadelphia, he brought back with him a fully romantic style, with which he dominated portraiture in the city until at least 1850. Sully’s second trip to England in 1837 came at the end of his most important period as a portraitist, but his long career extended almost to his death in 1872.

Thomas Sully, "Recollections of an Old Painter," Hours at Home 10 (November 1869): 69-74 § Edward Biddle and Mantle Fielding, The Life and Works of Thomas Sully (1783-1872) (1921; reprint, Charleston, S.C.: Garnier, 1969), with annotated transcription of the artist’s register of paintings, letters from the artist § Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Catalogue of the Memorial Exhibition of Portraits by Thomas Sully, exh. cat., 1922 § Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery, Mr. Sully, Portrait Painter: The Works of Thomas Sully (1783-1872), exh. cat., 1983, published by Smithsonian Institution Press, by Monroe H. Fabian, with bibliography and illustrated appendix of signatures § Steven E. Bronson, "Thomas Sully: Style and Development in Masterworks of Portraiture, 1783-1839," Ph.D. diss., University of Delaware, 1986, with bibliography.