The enduring brilliance of American portraiture in the early 19th century

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

Thomas Sully Torn Hat, 1820

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.


5 thoughts on “The enduring brilliance of American portraiture in the early 19th century”

  1. While evaluating Sully’s Self Portrait and Torn Hat, we can definitely see a consistency in his art style. First and foremost, the direction of the light – When you analyze where the direction of the light is coming from, you’ll see that it is coming from the right. Also, you’ll notice that his subjects aren’t so much centered, rather, they are more left-aligned in each of his compositions. The only difference that I will point out is in Sully’s portrait, where his head is turned to face the audience versus his son who sits facing forward. But when comparing Sully’s work to his contemporaries who seemed lured away by the American landscape, we see a difference. In a typical landscape painting, the eyes have to roam through the surface from one area to another. In Sully’s paintings, however, we are given just one focal point. Such is the style in most portraiture paintings.


  2. My response to this post follows closely with my second opinion paper:

    Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836). The transformative power of light is incredible. Light can be used in so many ways, to convey so many emotions, thoughts, and feelings. I enjoyed looking at Sully’s portraiture and use of light in Torn Hat; while the subject is nowhere near foul, without the light, the little boy could be described as plain or non-descript. However, when bathed in this incredibly strong light, this boy’s face begins to convey simultaneous emotions and feelings. What I see is mystery, tragedy, a sense of boyish charm, maybe some mischievousness, a touch of softness, a lingering question. The power of light has the ability to change and transform even the most bleak or nondescript subjects.


  3. Similarly, Thomas Cole was iconic for his landscape paintings. Thomas Sully was iconic for his self-portraits. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his quote, “There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful”. Thomas sully knows how to utilize light in order to make his portraits feel very intimate. The subtle warm flesh tones in the face, the dark shadows in the foreground provide contrast and dimension. When looking at both portraits, my eyes seem to be drawn towards the little intricacies in the face, such as the eyes or blushing of the cheeks. In comparison, landscape paintings feature a larger field of view that enables the eyes to wander around and take it all in.


  4. While his compatriots were being sucked into the American landscape, Thomas Sully continued to be interested in portraiture. In his two portraits, you can tell that he is interested in the human interaction that one can have with paintings. Where landscape paintings lead the eye across an enormous scenery, in portraiture, and especially in Sully’s work, there is only one focal point. The eyes are the focal point of each piece, and they draw in the viewer with the emotion conveyed in each one. Sully uses a similar color palette in both pieces, using earthy tones to convey the humanity in each figure. The fact that both pieces are only bust-length further conveys his need for the humanity in portraiture to shine through. He’s not worried about what the two figures are doing, and instead portrays a very close up, intimate version of them.


  5. I love the bust length format, I feel way more connected to the subject rather it being full length. A bust length portrait eludes to give more information on the face which I feel is basically all that matters. You understand the person through the face and that really is what portraits try to do. Help you understand the subject and feel a connection towards them. I really feel like these portraits are extremely successful on what they do.


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