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Milwaukee Art Museum premieres exhibition of theatrical paintings by Thomas Sully
Thomas Sully, Little Nell Asleep in the Curiosity Shop, 1841. Oil on canvas, 44 × 56 in. (111.8 × 142.2 cm). John Frederick Lewis Collection, Rare Book Department, The Free Library of Philadelphia.

MILWAUKEE, WIS.- Continuing a yearlong celebration of American art and artists, the Milwaukee Art Museum debuted an original exhibition on the career of Thomas Sully (1783–1872). Thomas Sully: Painted Performance is the first retrospective of the artist in thirty years, and the first to present both the artist’s portraits and subject pictures. The exhibition opened October 11, 2013.

“The exhibition provides a major new look at one of the most important nineteenth-century American artists, who expressed his lifelong love of the theatre and literature in paintings,” said Daniel Keegan, Milwaukee Art Museum director. “Shakespeare, fairy tales, popular culture, and the movers and shakers and celebrities of nineteenth-century American society are all captured in Sully’s work.”

Painted Performance brings together over seventy paintings from public and private collections and presents them thematically, in four sections: theatrical portraits of specific actors in a role; traditional portraits shaped by the artist’s theatrical and literary imagination; fancy portraits, imaginary portraits as conceits or inspired by whimsy; and fancy pictures, narrative paintings based on literary or artistic sources or the imagination.

Sully employed drama, theatricality, and a heightened sense of activity to great effect throughout his long career. In some of his grandest full-length portraits, Sully composed his figures as if they were literally onstage. Even in portraits that seemingly have nothing to do with the formal world of the theatre, his subjects act to directly engage the viewer.

The artist brought a similar level of theatricality to his fancy pictures. An important and unexplored category of mid-nineteenth-century American painting, fancy pictures were a special kind of narrative art that targeted viewers’ emotions and that often included social commentary. Sully’s fancy pictures offer a window into the issues of the day, including questions about gender, race, and childhood.

“Thomas Sully: Painted Performance reveals the full breadth of Sully’s artistic imagination and celebrates his unique contribution to America’s artistic and cultural life,” said William Rudolph, exhibition co-curator and the Dudley J. Godfrey, Jr. Curator of American Art and Decorative Arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

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