Perf. Arts

American portrait artist features at Milwaukee Art Museum
Thomas Sully's work includes paintings of presidents, royalty, actors and actresses



By KEVIN PASSON - Special to TimeOut

November 7, 2013


MILWAUKEE - The name Thomas Sully may not ring a bell outside of the art community, but most Americans see one of his portraits on a regular basis - that of President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.

Area residents can view dozens of Sully’s other portraits in a new exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Continuing a yearlong celebration of American art and artists, the museum is debuting an original exhibition on the career of Sully (1783-1872). “Thomas Sully: Painted Performance” is the first retrospective of the artist in 30 years.

“The exhibition provides a major new look at one of the most important 19th-century American artists, who expressed his lifelong love of the theater and literature in paintings,” said Daniel Keegan, Milwaukee Art Museum director. “Shakespeare, fairy tales, popular culture, and the movers and shakers and celebrities of 19th-century American society are all captured in Sully’s work.”

Co-curators for the exhibition are Carol Eaton Soltis, project associate curator of American art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and William Rudolph, the Dudley J. Godfrey Jr. curator of American art and decorative arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

“A lot of scholarship has gone into portraiture in the past 30 years, and we are thinking about portraits in new ways,” Rudolph said. “We also wanted the chance to show Sully’s subject pictures, which had rarely been seen since his lifetime.”

“Painted Performance” brings together more than 70 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.

“Theatrical portraits are images of actors and actresses in some of their celebrated roles. One of the best paintings in this category would be George Frederick Cooke as Richard III from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts,” Rudolph said. “Traditional portraits are the works that Sully created for his ‘everyday’ clients and range from images of merchants, lawyers, scholars, ministers and bankers, to philanthropists, presidents and even the young Queen Victoria.

“Fancy portraits are works that are meant to portray a type of character, rather than a specific individual, such as the marvelous Torn Hat from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Finally, the narrative paintings are scenes either taken from literature, drama, fairy tales or created out of the artist’s imagination.  One of the greatest of these is ‘Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire’ from the Dallas Museum of Art.”

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 theater, his subjects act to directly engage the viewer.

The theatrical qualities used by Sully include the look on the subject’s face, their eyes, how they are posed, the colors used and the brushstrokes.

“Also, his subjects have active, alert postures,” Rudolph said. “They twist, they turn, they move within their worlds. They are not static. Color and brushstrokes also help capture the viewer’s attention and provide a sense of animation and dynamism.”

One of Sully’s first great successes was Cooke as Richard III, which was a painting commissioned from Sully by a group of patrons who included a theatrical manager. Sully’s painting of a famous actor helped create a desire for portraits by other, less dramatic folk, Rudolph noted.

The artist brought a similar level of theatricality to his fancy pictures. An important and unexplored category of mid-19th-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.

The exhibition features self-portraits and family paintings, a common practice among artists in the 19th century.

“We would argue that Sully is one of the best 19th-century American portraitists of his generation,” Rudolph said. “He was certainly thought as such by his colleagues and clients.”

The exhibition will run through Jan. 5. It will then travel to the San Antonio Museum of Art.