Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Peasant Girl 1857

Thomas Sully 

Peasant Girl, Thomas Sully
Oil on canvas
19th Century
30 x 25 inches 76.2 x 63.5 cm
Painted for Henry Carey 1857 Wilstach Collection, until sold, Sotheby's New York 27th October 1978, Lot 5 Philip and Muriel Berman Collection, USA
Edward Biddle and Mantle Fielding, The Life and Works of Thomas Sully (Philadelphia, 1921) p. 376 no. 2485.
Thomas Sully ranks as one of America’s greatest artists. He was born in 1783 in Lincolnshire, England, the youngest son of nine children. 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. It was then that he discovered Rembrandt’s 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). The result was a formal but strangely intimate portrait that cemented Sully’s reputation as America’s best artist. It was during Sully’s second visit to England that he first copied Rembrandt’s ‘Peasant Girl’, hanging in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Sully made many copies of this work, and it became his most popular subject picture. This particular example, a wonderful insight into Sully’s fluid and colourful technique, cost $100 in 1857. It was begun February 3rd 1857, and completed by February 11th.

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 women and children. 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 1860s. Sully died in Philadelphia in 1872. His work can be found in museums across both the United States, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.