If you think that you’re not familiar with the work of 19th century portrait artist Thomas Sully, just open your wallet: A reproduction of Sully’s 1845 portrait of President Andrew Jackson adorns the $20 bill.
That’s one of many fascinating discoveries you’ll make at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s newest feature exhibitThomas Sully: Painted Performance. The exhibit contains a respectable portion of the artist’s oeuvre, including many works that had been lost or forgotten — until now.
Co-curators William Keyse Rudolph and Carol Eaton Soltis spent eight years rescuing nearly 80 works by the old American master from obscurity to create the exhibit. It’s on display through Jan. 5, 2014, after which it’s headed to San Antonio, Texas. Rudolph is MAM’s director of exhibitions and Dudley J. Godfrey Jr. Curator of American Art and Decorative Art. Soltis is project associate curator of American art at Philadelphia Museum of Art,
During a members-only preview, Rudolph explained that Sully’s work is noteworthy not just for his delicate brushstroke and knack for intricate detail, but also for the stories captured in his artistry. Sully’s work has a dramatic quality that reflects his family’s theatrical background.
Born in Britain, Sully (1783-1872) immigrated with his actor parents to Charleston, S.C., where they entertained the plantation-era South. Sully performed as a youngster, both as an acrobat and an actor.
Returning to England, Sully studied with Benjamin West and drew inspiration from other contemporary artists, including Sir Thomas Lawrence. He later settled in Philadelphia, then a hub of U.S. culture that eclipsed New York City’s artistic scene.
Sully’s family connections in the theater world led to his early commissions, and his subjects eventually encompassed a broad cross-section of elites, including the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette and the newly crowned Queen Victoria. He’s perhaps best known for the dramatic masterpiece The Passage of the Delaware, which depicts then-Gen. George Washington seated on a white stallion on the snowy banks of the Delaware River following a disastrous military defeat in New York (this painting is not part of the MAM exhibit).
One of the more interesting Sully paintings greeting visitors in MAM’s Baker/Rowland space is a nearly life-size portrait titled George Frederick Cooke, in the role of Richard III (1812). Sully shows the actor portraying Shakespeare’s villainous king in full, exquisite costume. Its subject standing before shadows, a cascade of light illuminating Cooke’s ornate velvet robe and sinister eyes, the painting makes it easy to imagine the impact Cooke had in the role.
A raucous playboy and a notorious drunkard, Cooke died shortly after the portrait was completed. When it was prominently displayed at the actor’s memorial, Sully’s career launched in earnest.
Sully’s male subjects impart a sense of machismo, while his women are imbued with graceful Victorian notions of beauty. Flushed cheeks, doe eyes, ivory skin and relaxed décolletage are common touches in his portraits of females. Though Sully acknowledged modifying some of his subjects — elongating the legs of one magistrate’s daughter, softening the laugh lines of another — his journal entries and letters of correspondence indicate he was quite spot on.
A true “working artist,” Sully painted scenes from popular fiction in order to “play to the galleries,” after his portrait commissions began to falter. Scenes from Charles Dickens’ novels and Shakespeare’s plays appeared, as well as images drawn from the artist’s imagination. Known as “subject” pictures or “fancy” pictures, these paintings include Gypsies, mermaids and children at play.
Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire (1843) exemplifies this subject matter. The massive painting reveals the kind heart of the drably dressed Cinderella as she plays with a kitten while her stepsisters stand vainly before a mirror.
An interesting aside to the painting is that Sully’s daughter Rosalie Sully, who posed as Cinderella, had an open lesbian relationship with noted actor Charlotte Cushman. According to historical sources, Cushman was a frequent guest in Sully’s home and referred to him as “Dad.” She also claimed that she and Rosalie Sully were “married” on July 6, 1844.
Rosalie Sully died not long after Cushman moved to Europe, where she was involved in several tumultuous relationships with other women.
It is clear that Sully had an unusual fondness for children, but his later portraits of youths grew dark and somber. By that time, he’d lost six children of his own, and his heartbreak over the losses was visible on his canvases.
One disturbing “fancy” painting by Sully features a lost girl, half dressed and in a dark cave, with only a scraggly dog for a companion. Sully returned to this scene numerous times over a period of years, and his dissatisfaction with it is apparent in the layers of paint that nearly obscure any fine detail.
MAM has arranged the Sully exhibit thematically rather than chronologically. The artist’s partiality to neutral tones — an array of browns, ivories, peaches and greys — lends a muted, hushed aura to the viewing experience.
Thomas Sully: Painted Performance is on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum through Jan. 5.
PHOTO: Thomas Sully’s daughter Rosalie posed for Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire. Credit: Courtesy Dallas Museum of Art/Pauline Allen Gill Foundation