Pre 1800’s Realism: Thomas Sully


Artist: Thomas Sully                                        Artist: Thomas Sully
Title: Musidora                                                  Title: Queen Victoria
Date: 1813–35                                                    Date: 1838
Medium: Oil on wood                                     Medium: Oil on canvas
Museum: The MET Acc. #: 21.48                   Museum: The MET Acc. #: 14.126.1

The son of actors Matthew Sully and Sarah Chester, Thomas Sully was born at Horn castle, England, in 1783. The family emigrated to Richmond, Virginia, in 1792 and two years later settled in Charleston, South Carolina. Sully returned to his native England for study in 1809–10 and in that year his level of painterly accomplishment grew tenfold. Back home he was lauded as the “American Lawrence,” the finest portraitist in Philadelphia and one of the best in the country. Sully returned home to Philadelphia in the fall of 1838 and began work simultaneously on two full-length portraits of Victoria, one for the Saint George Society and another for himself, to exhibit on tour. His studies, including a meticulous record of the palette he used to complete each painting, served him well and his two portraits were highly acclaimed even before he had finished them. Such was the advance notoriety of the portrait that the Saint George Society took Sully to court, arguing for their exclusive right to the image. In this, the first case over artistic copyright brought before the American bar, the Supreme Court of Philadelphia decided in May 1839 that the society held ownership of the portrait, while Sully retained title to the design or invention.
Realist art is named after its realistic approach to painting of the observable world, free from imaginary or idealized subject matter. You won’t find mystical landscapes, biblical scenes or Greco-Roman mythological themes. The work of Thomas Sully shown in the Metropolitan museum of art and most of his famous pieces around the world are devoted to portraiture of the higher class. He is an artist who is commissioned to record history through patriarchal still life paintings and also through the study of the human form.


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