The premier American portraitist of his day, Thomas Sully spent his formative years in Charleston, South Carolina. His youthful interest in art was nurtured by lessons from his brother-in-law, the French miniaturist Jean Belzons, and by the shared enthusiasm of his schoolmate Charles Fraser. Sully began to paint portraits professionally in 1801 and, from that time until his death, kept a detailed ledger of his sitters as well as his “fancy” paintings drawn from history and romance, an accounting that climbed to 2,631 works. While the record of Sully’s formal training is rather sketchy, he is said to have studied “face painting” with Gilbert Stuart in Boston prior to taking up residence in Philadelphia. In 1809, he departed for England for a period of study with Benjamin West, president of London’s Royal Academy. Though West encouraged him to continue a career as a portrait artist, it was the warmly colored and lavishly detailed work of Sir Thomas Lawrence which made the lasting impression upon Sully.
Upon his return to the United States in 1810, Sully established a home and studio in Philadephia; from there, he made extensive excursions to fulfill commissions, often including the Deep South on his itinerary. His 1824 portrait of John Quincy Adams heralded the rise of romanticism and, from that time forward, Sully was “the preferred painter of the great … those of great wealth, great beauty or great renown.” His sitters included Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, James Madison, Andrew Jackson and Rembrandt Peale. In 1837, Sully returned to England to paint Queen Victoria under commission from the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of the Sons of St. George, waiting five months to be granted a first sitting with the young monarch. Adored by his subjects for his lush coloration and elegant anatomical compositions, Sully was unapologetically honest about his flattering depictions. “From long experience I know that resemblance in a portrait is essential; but no fault will be found with the artist, (at least by the sitter,) if he improve the appearance.”
One of Sully’s “fancy” paintings, Mother and Child was commissioned by Colonel James A. Stevens for the art collection he installed aboard the Albany, an elegant steamer which made round trip runs up the Hudson from New York to Albany. Sully’s admiration for the Italian Renaissance artist Correggio can be seen not only in Mother and Child’s compositional format and “pearly tint,” but also in the subtle juxtaposition of innocence and experience, reminiscent of Correggio’s mythic canvases featuring chaste, half-clad feminine beauties attended by playful cupids.
Following West’s example, Sully was quite nurturing of younger artists and enjoyed a long association with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. One of his most important legacies is a small book he authored, Hints to Young Painters, and the Practice of Portrait-Painting, which was circulated in manuscript form during his lifetime and published after his death. Sully’s hints on techniques of medium and support, preparing the canvas, ordering the palette, mixing colors and varnishing a finished work would long influence portrait artists in the South, notably William Edward West, James DeVeaux and William Harrison Scarborough. Sully’s portraits are held in the collections of this country’s leading institutions, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Portrait Gallery and the White House Historical Association.