Thomas Sully: Background Information

American painter Thomas Sully (1783–1872) had a lifelong love affair with the theatre. Born into a family of actors, he made his debut on the stage at age eleven as a tumbler. The artist ultimately chose painting over performing, but the theatre shaped the artistic imagination of this powerhouse portraitist, and served to distinguish him from his nineteenth-century peers.

Sully’s earliest commissions as a young painter arose from family connections with the theatre. His first great public successes were of actors in their most famous roles, and he continued throughout his career to paint the leading stars of the stage, in and out of character.

An extraordinarily prolific portraitist, Sully made his sitters into stars, creating dynamic characters that play their parts on canvas with gusto. His body of work numbers over two thousand documented paintings created over seven decades and tells a variety of stories, including familiar scenes from Shakespeare, popular novels, and fairy tales, through performances staged in paint.

Thomas Sully inherited his relationship with the theatre. All of the Sully children except Lawrence, a portrait painter who died young, took turns on the stage. Sully’s first great patron was the English actor Thomas Abthorpe Cooper, whom he painted in Virginia in 1805.

This exhibition of portraits is organized into four sections: Theatrical Portraits, Traditional Portraits, Fancy Portraits or Subject Pictures. The activities can be used with the suggested portrait, or with any that you choose.