Notwithstanding the fact that the Founding Fathers had died off and the great heroes of the American war for independence and national sovereignty were facing their mortality as well, American painters were able to sustain their livelihood by casting their gaze to the beauty and majesty of the New World landscape. But the lure of portraiture was still strong and pervasive. The face continued to call to the American artists as the second and third decade of the 19th century pushed forward. Among the stalwart painters of this time who responded to the lure of the face was the transplanted English artist Thomas Sully. Sully was born in England in 1783 but came with his family to America (Charlestown, South Carolina) when he was nine years of age. Young Sully acquired a base of education in the arts from his older brother and from local artists plying their trade in Charlestown. Sully had started to gain a reputation with portrait commissions in Norfolk, Virginia, New York and Philadelphia. By 1809 the need to “finish” his education abroad became too strong for Sully to ignore. Off to London and the studios of Benjamin West and Sir Thomas Lawrence was the plan enacted by Sully. “Finishing” his education in London gave Sully the final puzzle piece of confidence to return to America and resume his once promising career as a painter.
In the early 1820s Sully did a Self Portrait (1821) and a portrait of his son who modeled for the young child featured in the painting Torn Hat (1820). Sully was fully capable of treating portraits to full-length poses if he so chose but he seemed especially comfortable with the informal bust-length format. Describe what you see in Sully’s Self Portrait and Torn Hat where the transplanted Englishman has sustained portraiture while his contemporaries seemed lured away by the American landscape.
Thomas Sully, Self Portrait, 1821