Thomas Sully, daguerreotype by Mathew Brady's studio of an oil painting,
between 1851 and 1860.
June 19, 1783
Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England
November 5, 1872
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Thomas Sully (June 19, 1783 – November 5, 1872) was a well-known American
(English-born) painter, mostly of portraits.
Life and career
Sully was born in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England, to the actors Matthew
and Sarah Sully. In March 1792 the Sullys and their nine children immigrated
to Richmond, Virginia, where Thomas’s uncle managed a theater. The boy
attended school in New York City until 1794, when his mother died and he
returned to Richmond. By July of that year the family was in Charleston, South
Carolina. After a brief apprenticeship to an insurance broker who recognized
his artistic talent, at age 12 or thereabouts Sully began painting and studied
with his brother-in-law Jean Belzons (active 1794–1812), a French miniaturist,
until they had a falling-out in 1799. He then returned to Richmond to learn
"miniature & Device painting" from his elder brother Lawrence Sully
(1769–1804). After Lawrence Sully's death, Thomas Sully married his
sister-in-law, Lawrence's widow, Sarah Annis Sully and not only take on the
raising of Lawrence's children but have a further nine children with Sarah
himself. Among the children were Alfred Sully, Mary Chester Sully (who married
Sully's protégé, the painter John Neagle), Jane Cooper Sully Darley, Blanche,
Rosalie Sully, and Thomas Wilcocks Sully. Sully was also one of the founding
members of The Musical Fund Society where he painted the portraits of many
of the musicians and composers.
Plaque on the former home of Thomas Sully in Society Hill,
Sully became a professional painter at age 18 in 1801. He studied
face-painting under Gilbert Stuart in Boston for three weeks. After some
time in Virginia with this brother, Sully moved to New York, after which he
moved to Philadelphia in 1806, where he resided for the remainder of his life.
In 1809 he traveled to London for nine months of study under Benjamin West.
Sully's 1824 portraits of John Quincy Adams, who became President within the
year, and then the Marquis de Lafayette appear to have brought him to the
forefront of his day. (His Adams portrait may be seen in the National Gallery
of Art, Washington.) Many famous Americans of the day had their portraits
painted by him. In 1837-1838 he was in London to paint Queen Victoria at the
request of Philadelphia's St. George's Society. His daughter Blanche assisted
him as the Queen's "stand-in", modeling the Queen's costume when she was not
available. One of Sully's portraits of Thomas Jefferson is owned by the
Jefferson Literary and Debating Society at the University of Virginia and
hangs in that school's Rotunda. Another Jefferson portrait, this one
head-to-toe, hangs at West Point, as is his portrait of Alexander Macomb
Sully's own index indicates that he produced 2631 paintings from 1801, most of
which are currently in the United States. His style resembles that of Thomas
Lawrence. Though best known as a portrait painter, Sully also made historical
pieces and landscapes. An example of the former is the 1819 Passage of the
Delaware, now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Death and legacy
Grave marker for Thomas Sully and his wife Sarah.
Sully died in Philadelphia on November 5, 1872, where he had spent the
majority of his long and successful career. He is buried in the Laurel Hill
Cemetery. His book Hints to young painters was published after his death.
His son, Alfred Sully, was a brigadier general in the Union Army during the
American Civil War. Through Alfred, he is the great-grandfather of the noted
Yankton Sioux ethnologist and writer Ella Deloria and the great-great
grandfather of Standing Rock Sioux scholar and writer Vine Deloria, Jr. author
of Custer Died For Your Sins in 1969, an American Indian civil rights
Sully was a great-uncle of the New Orleans-based architect, also named Thomas
Gallery of works
Thomas Sully’s painting Mother and Son
Thomas Sully’s painting Lady with a Harp, a portrait of Eliza
Ridgely (1818), was at Hampton Mansion from the 1820s to 1945, when it
was sold to the National Gallery of Art
Photo of an engraving of Sully's portrait of Eliza, daughter of Joshua
Bates of Boston (USA), and wife to the Belgian statesman Sylvain van
Elizabeth/Elise Wadsworth, wife of Charles Augustus Murray.