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: A Portrait by Thomas Sully


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
When painting first began to emerge as a national art in the America of the eighteenth century the pattern on which it was modelled was the great English school of portraiture, in that period as much as a magnet to American artists as French painters of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were to become to a subsequent generation of American artists. Stuart, West, and Copley were among the first and greatest to draw their inspiration from London, and examples of their work in the Institute show how variously they adapted that influence to suit American tastes. A further example of American painting to be seen in Thomas Sully's Portrait of Robert Erwin Gray, recently acquired through the Cooke Fund.It is an attractive and spirited work painted in Philadelphia in 1811, soon after Sully's return from his first voyage to England. The subject was a wealthy young brewer, and Sully has captured in his likeness the enthusiasm, self-confidence, and vigor which one might expect to find in a man who had achieved success at an early age. The figure is painted half-length with the head turned toward the spectator. The face, with its bold blue eyes and willful mouth, wears a jaunty expression that is reflected in the pose; a somewhat arrogant attitude with the left hand resting on the back of a scarlet chair and the right placed on the hip under a brown great-coat with broad lapels. The thatch of dark, reddish-brown hair is held in at the nape of the neck by a black ribbon. All in all Mr. Gray the brewer is well-satisfied with himself, and he must have taken great pride in Sully's portrait of him. He paid eighty dollars for it.That Sully could have turned out such a dashing portrait with the modicum of training he had at twenty-eight is a tribute both to his determination to become a painter and his ability to profit by what he observed. Sully's parents, English actors who had come to Charleston about 1792, apparently hoped that their son would make business his career, for they put him into the office of an insurance broker when he was only twelve. Young Thomas was not a success in that line, however. He spent most of his time making sketches, and was finally dismissed with the advice that he make art his profession.Thereupon began the long struggle that was to bring Sully finally into the front rank of the second generation of American portraitists. He had his first instruction from a Mr. Belzano, a French refugee who had married Sully's sister and who made his living by painting miniatures; and accomplishment which had previously served only as an avocation. The association did not last long due to some quarrel, and young Sully went off to join his brother Lawrence, also a miniature painter, in Norfolk. There he remained for several years, experimenting with oils when he tired of water color. He picked up some knowledge of the craft from a kindly sign painter, but realized, as so many early American painters had done, that he needed expert instruction and that he must go to England for it. He had already begun to save for this purpose when his brother died, and he was left with the responsibility for supporting his sister-in-law and her children.Sully's first break came through his theatrical connections. It occurred in Richmond, where Thomas H. Cooper sat for him during an engagement at the local theatre. The actor subsequently invited Sully to New York, saw to it that he had sitters, and lent him some money. During this time Sully was constantly on the watch for opportunities to improve his work. He engaged Trumbull to paint a portrait of his wife so that he could observe the artist at work. He made a trip to Boston to see Stuart, who suggested that Sully paint a portrait for criticism. When Stuart had examined the portrait at length he advised Sully to keep what he had, but to get as much more as he could. Sully began to get more by becoming an assistant to Jarvis, and later by associating himself with the miniaturist Benjamin Trott in Philadelphia. He still felt the need of English study, however, and a group of friends, confident of his worth, subscribed a fund to take him there. In return he was to paint for each subscriber a copy of an Old Master in England. Even so it required the most painstaking economy to see him through the nine months he spent in England in 1809-10. He was received in a kindly fashion by West, who also criticized his work and made many valuable suggestions. Sully worked furiously day and night, subsisting on a pittance in order to prolong his stay.The hardships he had undergone paid dividends on his return to Philadelphia. Then began the period that proved to be his best and most successful. His painting had acquired a new firmness and authority, and his handling of colors contributed enormously to the charm of his portraits. In London he had been most captivated by the work of Lawrence, whose influence is to be observed in many of Sully's portraits, particularly those of women. But Sully's work also owned something to Stuart in its treatment of flesh tones, and in this influence is to be seen the fruit which the native school of painting was beginning to bear. Sully's work seldom possessed the vigor of either Stuart's or Copley's; he was inclined to the prettiness which was beginning to invade portrait painting toward the middle of the century. This tendency is plain in many of his feminine portraits, and especially in the likeness of Queen Victoria which he painted in England in 1837 as a commission for the St. George's Society of Philadelphia. Yet he often produced such vital and dashing portraits as that of Mr. Gray. Together with his copy of Stuart's Monroe-Lenox Washington, purchased by the Institute several years ago, it gives a good idea of his personal contribution to American portraiture.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Portrait of Robert Erwin Gray by Thomas Sully. American, 1783-1872. Elbridge C. Cooke Fund.
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Source: "A Portrait by Thomas Sully," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 33, no. 19 (May, 1944): 62-63.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009