Portraitist. Sully was born on June 8 or 9, 1783, in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England, to Matthew Sully and Sarah Chester, both stage actors. In 1792 the entire Sully family immigrated to the United States, and two years later they settled in Charleston. Sully obtained his American citizenship in 1809 and emerged as this country’s preeminent portrait painter of the nineteenth century.
In Charleston, Sully attended Reverend Robert Smith’s school, where he met Charles Fraser, his first artistic mentor. William Dunlap, this country’s earliest art historian, later quoted Sully as saying that Fraser “was the first person that ever took the pains to instruct me in the rudiments of the art, and although a mere tyro, his kindness, and the progress made in consequence of it, determined the course of my future life.” Sully studied under the French miniature painter M. Belzons before leaving Charleston in 1799. For the next decade Sully lived an unsettled existence with short periods in Richmond, Norfolk, New York, Hartford, Boston, and Philadelphia. On June 27, 1806, Sully married Sarah Annis Sully, the widow of his brother Lawrence. The marriage produced nine children. From July 1809 until March 1810 he was in England, where the noted expatriate artist Benjamin West encouraged him to study anatomy. While in London, Sully copied canvases by West and old masters painters, the standard practice for aspiring artists of the day.
After his return, Sully made Philadelphia his base for the rest of his career, with short sojourns to East Coast cities in pursuit of portrait commissions. In 1837–1838 he was in London to paint a full-length likeness of a youthful Queen Victoria, an undertaking regarded as the highlight of his career. Quite businesslike, Sully maintained a register of his paintings that documents the fact that he painted more than two thousand canvases during his long life, along with six hundred additional “fancy pieces” consisting of genre and mythological subjects and copies of old masters.
Sully’s success rests in his facile technique and ability to capture likenesses while flattering his sitters. He painted statesmen and military figures, successful merchants, and their wives and children. In 1841 and 1845 he made trips to Charleston; during the first one he completed seventeen portraits, and on the second he painted twenty-two canvases. Among his sitters were James Louis Petigru (1842) and his daughter Caroline Carson (1841), whose portraits belong to the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston. Over the years Sully painted other Charlestonians living elsewhere, including Charles Izard Manigault (1817) and Sarah Reeve Ladson Gilmor (1823). The latter, painted in Baltimore, belongs to the Gibbes Museum of Art and is considered to be one of Sully’s most appealing portraits. A quiet and reflective Mrs. Gilmor stands dressed in a colorful turban, a gauzy white dress, and a lusciously textured silk green wrap trimmed in ermine. Sully died in Philadelphia on November 5, 1872, and was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Biddle, Edward, and Mantle Fielding. The Life and Works of Thomas Sully (1783–1872). 1921. Reprint, Charleston, S.C.: Garnier, 1969.
Fabian, Monroe H. Mr. Sully, Portrait Painter. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.