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26 June, 2013
Thomas Sully
Being involved in "the arts" just comes naturally to some families. Sometimes it stretches back several generations, a grain running deep and wide through some family trees to the point that several members of each generation end up with creative splinters embedded deep in their souls. In the late 1700s, in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England, Matthew and Sarah Chester Sully were the progenitors of one such family. Progenitors indeed, they had nine children. They were actors too...husband, wife, and all the kids as soon as they could walk, talk, and remember lines. In 1792, at the invitation of his father's brother-in-law, Matthew packed up all his belongings, his wife, along with the rest of the family theatre troupe, and immigrated to Richmond, Virginia. There they performed in what amounted to the family theatre...all except the youngest son, who was being schooled in New York.

Thomas Sully, the youngest of the nine, was born in 1783. His formal education in New York was cut short in 1794 when his mother died. He returned to Richmond and the family trade, then with his father and all the others, they moved to another theatre managed by his grandfather's brother-in-law in Charleston, South Carolina. It was here that Thomas determined to follow in his brother, Lawrence's, footsteps and veer off into painting. There, keeping it all in the family so to speak, he apprenticed to his sister's husband, Jean Belzons, a miniaturist who had recently come over from France. During the next ten years Thomas Sully studied under a virtual pantheon of portrait painters ranging from John Trumbull, Gilbert Stuart, and later in London, Benjamin West and Henry Fuseli. With this kind of training, and the family pedigree in the arts, he was bound to be a success.

He opened his first studio in 1804, and with the death of Gilbert Stuart in 1826, he became the foremost portrait painter in America. Working mostly out of Philadelphia, but often travelling almost the entire length of the eastern seaboard in fulfilling hundreds of commissions, Sully specialised in a fancy, English style of portraiture, superficially attractive, but criticised for lacking much in the way of depth. But it was the style popular at the time, and following a trip to England where he painted a full-length portrait of Queen Victoria, his popularity soared. He took with him his son, Thomas Wilcocks Sully, whom he trained to follow in his footsteps as he steered his branch of the family tree toward painting rather than the theatre. Unfortunately, his son's career was cut short by his death in 1847 at the age of 36. Since he no longer had a son whose career he could guide, he wrote a short book entitled, Hints to Young Painters and the Process of Portrait Painting. Written in 1851, but not published until just before his death some 20 years later, the book is a common-sense compendium of painterly wisdom not totally out of place, even today.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
21 December 1998

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