THOMAS SULLY

Ever since our culture took on a national character in the mid- eighteenth century, the vast majority of American portrait painters have been primarily concerned with recording individual personality.* The urge to put on canvas what Stuart called "the animal before you" is manifest in the crabbed patternmaking of most primitives, in emphatic likenesses by Copley, suave likenesses by Stuart, Eakins's monumental figure paintings, Speicher's strongly lighted studio pictures. The list could be extended indefinitely, since emphasis on personality rather than on manners or class reflects the individualism basic to democratic thought.

Among the few important American portraitists who have submerged character in an effort to achieve a generalized and ideal image, be it of beauty or wealth or virtue or social class, Thomas Sully was one of the most remarkable, for he flourished in a period when opposite artistic tendencies were at their very strongest. Never before or since have the great majority of American likenesses been as downright as they were in his environment.

That Sully was born in a different environment, in England, and spent his first nine years there, is significant, but probably not so much as the fact that his mother and father were actors. Make-believe was a basic part of his nature from the very start: lights, costumes, grease paint that, when the curtain rose, changed ordinary men and women into beings from a strange and wonderful clime.

Sully's parents were worried by the stars in their son's eyes. As they struggled along in the theatrical company at Charleston, South Carolina, which they had joined during 1792, they visualized for their son a safe business life: they apprenticed him to an insurance broker. The only figures he was interested in, however, were human figures and, after he had spoiled his quota of ledgers with drawings, he was allowed to become a portrait painter. His meager training made his first canvases hard

____________________
*
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Catalogue of the 150th Anniversary of the Pennsylvania Academy ( Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1955), pp. 27-31.

-182-

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