Featuring a selection of approximately thirty paintings and drawings by this important and influential nineteenth-century American portraitist Thomas Sully (1783–1872), this exhibition is drawn exclusively from the Metropolitan's collection. The works spanned the most creative and productive years of the artist's career from around 1810 through the 1840s, during which time he rose to a position of preeminence as America's leading portrait painter.
Born in England but brought to America as a child, Sully received early training both as a miniaturist and painter in oils. Determined to improve his technique, he returned to England in 1809 to study with Benjamin West, but it was the glamorous portraits of British artist Thomas Lawrence, with their bravura brushwork and lush color, that impressed him most. Returning to America, he eventually settled in Philadelphia, where his stylish and elegant portraits were soon much in demand among the city's elite. Although Sully's sitters included many prominent men of the day—among them Andrew Jackson and the Marquis de Lafayette—he was best known for his portraits of women. According to one admiring critic, "His female portraitures are oftentimes poems, full of grace and tenderness," with eyes that "are liquid enough and clear enough to satisfy even a husband—or a lover."
The exhibition includes Sully's Mrs. Katherine Matthews (1813), an early example of his assimilation of Lawrence's dashing style, and William Gwynn (1821), one of Sully's most engaging and spontaneous portraits of a man. Sully's continued indebtedness to Lawrence is seen in Mrs. Jane Montgomery (1845), who gazes alluringly out at the viewer as she toys with her necklace.
In addition to the artist's portrayals of the wealthy and socially prominent, the exhibition includes Sully's intimate and engaging studies of his family and friends—a number of the works on view were given to the Museum by the artist's grandson, Francis Thomas Sully Darley—as well as a selection of drawings and other graphic works. Sarah Annis Sully(1832), in contrast to works such as Mrs. Jane Montgomery, is an honest and affectionate portrayal of his wife. Sully's portrait of his daughter Jane Cooper Sully Darley and her son Francis, also on view, is dated 1840, soon after the completion of his acclaimed portrait of Queen Victoria. One of his most ambitious works, it shows mother and son posed amid various classical symbols of fidelity and filial devotion. The exhibition also includes a striking self-portrait (ca. 1821), in which the artist turns to look at the viewer, brush in hand, as if momentarily interrupted in his work.
The exhibition complements Queen Victoria and Thomas Sully (on view September 19–December 31, 2000), a display of approximately thirty-five works documenting the creation of Sully's celebrated 1838 portrait of Queen Victoria.
Thomas Sully (American, 1783–1872). Portrait of the Artist, 1821. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Rosa C. Stanfield, in memory of her father, Henry Robinson, 1894 (94.23.3)