Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Howell Brothers 1840c.

Thomas Sully 

The Howell Brothers, Thomas Sully
Oil on canvas
19th Century
30 x 25 inches 76 x 63.5 cm
Rev. John Rouse Bloxham DD (1807 - 1891) nephew of the artist, by whom given to a Mr Peel (perhaps John Floyd Peel (1827 - 1910), fourth son of Sir Robert Peel) 21st January 1890; Christie's March 1913 (30), sold for 5 guineas; Francis Wellesley, his sale Sotheby's 26th February 1964 (15); The Pitt Club, Cambridge (1964).
Edward Biddle and Mantle Fielding The Life and Works of Thomas Sully (1783-1872) Charleston SC 1969 p.290 catalogue no. 830 (with erroneous dimensions)
‘Other people’s children, when painted by Sully, are all that their parents want them to be - well scrubbed, pleasant and well behaved’1 This comment made of the comparable Vanderkemp Children 1832 (Washington NGA) is no less true in the present instance. The sitters in this portrait are the three sons of Asher and Harriet Howell. The boys are sitting on a sofa, more implied than actual, in a closely-grouped trio; the eldest brother in the centre has his arm around around the younger brother on the right, and the youngest boy rests his head against the eldest’s shoulder. The composition is an affectionate portrait of the three sitters, whilst being at the same time an emblem of brotherly love. Sully’s highly romanticised style teeters on the brink of sentimentality, and is a suggestion of what is to come in the following artistic generation.
The Howells were prominent in Philadelphia, during the period of Sully’s work and subsequently. Sully painted twelve portraits of members of the Howell family, who were related to the Howells of New Jersey, famous patriots during the Revoltionary War.

Thomas Sully was born in 1783 in Lincolnshire, the youngest son of nine children born to actors. At the suggestion of his father''s brother-in-law, a theatre manager in Virginia and South Carolina, the Sullys emigrated to America in 1792. Sully went to school in New York until his mother''s death in 1794, when he returned to live with his family in Richmond. From there they moved to Charleston South Carolina, where the future artist performed on the stage with his parents and siblings. Understandably he sought an alternative to this colourful career, and following the example of his older brother, the miniature painter Lawrence, Sully resolved to become an artist.
In 1807 he travelled to Boston and spent about three weeks studying with Gilbert Stuart, who encouraged his efforts to become a portraitist. Later that year Sully moved to Philadelphia, where he remained for the rest of his life.

His portrait practice flourished, and in May 1809 he entered into an agreement with a group of prominent citizens that enabled him to embark a year-long trip to study art in London. There he studied under Benjamin West and Henry Fuseli, and immersed himself in collections of old master paintings. When Sully returned to Philadelphia in 1810 he quickly set about establishing his future reputation as one of America's foremost portraitists by painting a number of full-length commissions, beginning in 1811 with George Frederick Cooke in the Role of Richard III.

Sully's artistic activity was not confined to Philadelphia, and throughout his long career he made numerous protracted trips to Washington, Baltimore, Boston, New York, and West Point. At the height of his fame in 1837 a Philadelphia association of British expatriates called the Society of the Sons of St. George sent him to England to paint a full-length portrait of the recently crowned Queen Victoria (version Royal Collection). It was said of this formal but oddly intimate portrait that Sully was the only person who could draw Queen Victoria’s mouth rightly.

Sully was America's foremost exponent of the highly romanticized, painterly, and fluid style of portraiture practised by the two contemporary British artists he had most admired during his year of study in England, Sir Henry Raeburn and Sir Thomas Lawrence. Although he painted many of the most prominent politicians, clergymen, and military heroes of his era, Sully's fame rests mainly on his exaggeratedly elegant and idealised portraits of fashionable society women, and, to a lesser extent, his sentimental group portraits of children, as here. This aesthetic, however, appealed greatly to the elite social stratum from which Sully drew his patrons, and earned him the status of being the most successful American portrait painter following the death of Gilbert Stuart in 1826, until his gradual decline in the 1850s. Sully died in Philadelphia in 1872.

1. Monroe H. Fabian Mr Sully Portrait Painter Exhibtion Catalogue National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington 1983 p.90
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.