by Dr. Lori Verderame
Born in 1783 in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England, Thomas Sully was the youngest son of nine children. After the Sully family relocated to the United States in 1792, Thomas Sully attended school in New York until his mother’s death in 1794 when he then returned to live with his family in Richmond, VA.
Following the example of his older brother, the miniature painter Lawrence Sully, Thomas Sully decided to become an artist. He first received art lessons from Charles Fraser and then he was apprenticed to his brother-in-law, a French emigrée miniaturist named Jean Belzons. Two years later after opening his own studio in 1804, Sully accepted a commission to paint at a theater in New York where he met art critic and artist William Dunlap, art collector John Wesley Jarvis, and artist and portraitist to General George Washington, John Trumbull.
Taking an interest in portrait painting, Sully decided to invest one hundred dollars in his future and asked John Trumbull to paint a portrait of his wife so that he might learn something of Trumbull’s technique. In 1807, Sully travelled to Boston to spend some time studying the work of well known portrait painter Gilbert Stuart, who encouraged Sully’s efforts to become a portraitist.
Training in England
In 1809, Sully entered into an agreement with a group of prominent citizens that enabled him to embark upon a year-long trip to study art in London. Sully studied under Benjamin West and Henry Fuseli and moved in the circles of the British artists active at the Royal Academy of Art. Sully was America’s foremost exponent of the highly romanticized, painterly, and fluid style of portraiture practiced by the two contemporary British artists he had most admired during his year of study in England, Sir Henry Raeburn and Sir Thomas Lawrence.
Successful career in Philadelphia
As it turned out, Sully was the most successful American portrait painter following Gilbert Stuart’s death in 1826. After his trip to Boston, Sully moved to Philadelphia where his portrait practice flourished until his death in 1872.
During his career, Thomas Sully painted many of the most prominent politicians, clergymen, and military heroes of his era including Queen Victoria. His professional stature was such that he attracted many pupils, most notable among them Charles Robert Leslie, John Neagle, and Jacob Eichholtz and he also trained several of his children to become competent artists.