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American portraitist Thomas Sully featured in special exhibition at San Antonio Museum of Art
Thomas Sully, (American, born England, 1783–1872) Sarah Esther Hindman as Little Red Riding Hood, 1833. Oil on canvas, 52 1⁄2 × 32 1⁄2 in. (133.4 × 82.6 cm). The Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 4680-10-0096
SAN ANTONIO, TX.- The paintings of Thomas Sully, one of the most significant portraitists of the nineteenth century, will be on view at the San Antonio Museum of Art from February 8, 2014, to May 11, 2014. Thomas Sully: Painted Performance is the first retrospective of the artist in thirty years, and the first to present the artist’s portraits and subject pictures together.

Thomas Sully (1783–1872) was born into a family of actors and was sustained all his life by friendships with stars of the stage. His paintings reflect this background, depicting actors in costume, Shakespearean characters, scenes from fairy tales, and many leaders and celebrities of Sully’s time including a young Queen Victoria. (Many viewers will be familiar with his portrait of Andrew Jackson as it is represented on the U.S. twenty-dollar bill.) Sully employed drama and theatricality to great effect. In some of his grandest full-length portraits, Sully composed his figures as though they were onstage.

Painted Performance brings together nearly eighty paintings from public and private collections, including “Sarah Sully and Her Dog, Ponto” from the San Antonio Museum of Art’s collection, and presents them thematically, in four sections: theatrical portraits of actors in a role; traditional portraits shaped by the artist’s theatrical imagination; fancy or imaginary portraits; and fancy pictures, narrative paintings based on literary or artistic sources. 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 often included social commentary. Sully’s fancy pictures offer a window into the issues of the day, including questions about gender, race, and childhood.

“This exhibition reveals the full breadth of Sully’s artistic imagination and celebrates his unique contribution to America’s artistic and cultural life,” said William Keyse Rudolph, exhibition co-curator and the newly appointed Marie and Hugh Halff Curator of American Art and Mellon Chief Curator at the San Antonio Museum of Art. “Sully intuitively understood that ‘All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players.’”

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