American Art

Thomas Sully, early American painter of the theatre

Thomas Sully, “Macbeth in the Witches’ Cave”, 1840, oil on canvas, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C.

I read a really good article in last month’s The Magazine Antiques about nineteenth-century American painter Thomas Sully and his works inspired by his background in theatre. The article came from the catalog of an exhibition, Thomas Sully: Painted Performance, which was recently held at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The December issue of American Art Review had a nice write-up of the show as well. The exhibition includes Sully’s portraits of theatre people, his other portraits that have theatrical qualities of composition, lighting, and so forth, and his paintings of scenes from various literary works “as if they were frozen moments from a play” (American Art Review 92).

THOMAS SULLY, “Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire”, 1843 Oil on canvas, 50 × 58 in., Dallas Museum of Art.

It is this last category, frequently termed Fancy Pictures –  “halfway between history painting and genre painting” (The Magazine Antiques 114) – that interests me most. It has been speculated that Sully painted so many literary-inspired Fancy Pictures because the popularity of their source material made them highly marketable (American Art Review 94-95). Let us take a look at some of Sully’s works in this genre. Some of the paintings illustrated here were in the articles I mentioned; the last few were not.

THOMAS SULLY, “Little Nell Asleep in the Curiosity Shop”, 1841, Oil on canvas, 44″ × 56″ John Frederick Lewis Collection, Rare Book Department, The Free Library of Philadelphia.

Little Nell is from Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Isn’t she darling? Although The Old Curiosity Shop was not originally a play, I have no trouble believing that this scene takes place on a well-dressed set.

THOMAS SULLY, “Prison Scene from J. Fenimore Cooper’s ‘The Pilot’: Cecelia Howard and Katherine Plowden Arousing the Prisoner Edward Griffith from His Slumber”, 1841 Oil on canvas, 37″ × 28″, Birmingham Museum of Art.

This work is based on a nineteenth-century novel, but the figures and composition remind me of something much older and more Biblical, like a painting of Judith and Holofernes.

Thomas Sully, “Portia and Shylock”, 1835, oil on canvas, 38″x29″, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C.

Despite having perhaps the most highly theatrical subject matter of any work here, “Portia and Shylock” in some ways seems the least visually theatrical to me. I think it is because of the composition, which is tightly cropped around the two main figures and does not provide much sense of the stage or a set in the way that many of Sully’s other works do.

Thomas Sully, “Musidora”, 1813-1835, oil on wood, 28 1/8″ x 22 1/2″, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

At first, I wasn’t sure what genre this painting fit into, but the name seemed to suggest a literary or mythological connection. Turns out, it depicts a scene from James Thomson’s The Seasons, a four-part poem (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History). Thus, a work that seems on the surface to be an anonymous nude figure turns out to be something more, as is often the case.

Thomas Sully, “The Love Letter”, 1834, oil on canvas, 64 x 76 cm, The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford University.
Thomas Sully, “Child Asleep (The Rosebud)”, 1841, oil on canvas, 23 7/8″ x 36 1/2″, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I don’t know for certain whether these two paintings depict scenes from literature, allegorical figures, or narratives of Sully’s own invention. They share some of the same theatrical qualities as his other Fancy Pictures, such as the lush red drapery reminiscent of a stage’s grand drape. That drapery also appears in “Little Nell Asleep in the Curiosity Shop” and “Portia and Shylock”.

Thomas Sully, “Lady on the Battlements of a Castle”, 1868, oil on canvas, 22″x14″. Private collection.
Photo by rocsdad at
Thomas Sully, “The Lost Child”, 1837, oil on panel, 27″x21.5″, Denver Museum of Art. Photo by rocsdad at

Here are two of Sully’s genre paintings with no literary connections that I can find, though both do seem to hint at some sort of narrative. Both works’ compositions are set in nature and recede into distant background landscapes with horizon lines, while Sully’s more theatrical pieces typically use walls and curtains to push the subjects forward and create very shallow spaces. Works like “Little Nell” and “Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire” provide a glimpse into rooms beyond, but there too the eye encounters another wall fairly quickly. That lack of depth helps provide the sense that the action in those works is taking place on a theatre set, which may try to imply space beyond but can physically only extend back a short distance. “Lady on the Battlements of a Castle” and “The Lost Child” are stylistically closest to “Musidora”, which shares a literary connection with Sully’s thespian paintings but is also set in an exterior landscape and does not

Thomas Sully: Painted Performance closes today at the Milwaukee Art Museum, but it will be appearing at the San Antonio Museum of Art starting on February 8th.


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