Thomas Sully: Jumping into a Portrait

The Fancy or Subject Portraits Thomas Sully kept meticulously detailed records that provide an in-depth understanding of the life of a working artist in nineteenth-century America. Rather than representing sitters in contemporary dress, these portraits present their subjects in imaginative costumes that evoke character types or specific characters from literature or the stage. Although nearly 90 percent of Sully’s documented works are portraits, Sully also created large- and small-scale paintings drawn from dramatic and literary sources—or invented entirely from his imagination (or “fancy”). Fancy or subject pictures served multiple purposes for the artist. They allowed him to experiment with different subjects, materials, and technical processes.


Have students look at a portrait that contains a scene, Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire (1843). Ask them where or who they would like to be in the picture. Direct the students to use their imaginations and “jump into” the image. Ask questions about the experience of being “in” the portrait that relates to the five senses: sight, touch, smell, taste, hear.