Thomas Sully, who was born 200 years ago, lived long enough to paint Jefferson from life and Lincoln from a photograph. He looked into the eyes of Lafayette, James Monroe, Gilbert Stuart, John James Audubon and the young Queen Victoria. But the portraits he produced, all except the best of them, are wartless fabrications. He painted suave white lies.
"Mr. Sully, Portrait Painter," an 81-portrait show that goes on view today at the National Portrait Gallery, is as meaty as whipped cream. The fault is not the gallery's. Sully's portraits fawn.
"Flattery," he wrote, "nothing so sure of success as flattering your portraits."
Time has proved him wrong. Flattery pulls in the commissions but its deceptions earn posterity's displeasure. In 1820, at the height of his career, Sully was described by the writer William Dunlap as "the prince of American portrait painters." But in 1983, "courtier" seems a better word.
This exhibition irritates. Sully's portraits cloy. They are far too goody-goody. Other people's children, when painted by Sully," observes Monroe H. Fabian, who organized the show, "are all that their parents want them to be--well-scrubbed, pleasant, well-behaved." In short, they make one cringe. Sully's clear-eyed gentlemen wear Byronic wind-tossed ringlets; all his clear-skinned ladies have necks as long as swans'.
Sully would today be happily remembered had he picked the path of clarity, as Copley had already done and Eakins would do later; or had he managed to achieve the life-revealing brio of his colleague, Gilbert Stuart, or the candid curiosity of his friend Charles Willson Peale. Instead, his portraits, seen together, prophesy the unctuousness of late Victorian kitsch.
Sully whitewashed what he witnessed. In 1824, when Lafayette returned to tour in triumph the land he had helped free, Sully went to Washington to paint him. "The artist," observes Fabian, "has firmed his sitter's flesh and made his semiridiculous dark toupe'e look like real hair." Lafayette was 67. In Sully's pompous painting he looks 34.
In 1831 when he portrayed Rebecca Gratz, he rejuvenated her as radically. She was a Philadelphian famous for good works. (She was, in fact, so famous that when Washington Irving described her to Sir Walter Scott, the Britisher was so impressed that he gave her name and sterling character to the flawless heroine of his novel "Ivanhoe.") In November 1830, she had Sully paint her portrait. She didn't like it. He "erased" it. Later he tried harder. She was 50 when she sat for the dark-eyed portrait here. She looks, say, 22.
The actress Charlotte Cushman, whom Sully painted in 1843, was not fooled by Sully's flattery. But she wasn't offended, either. When she sent him $90.10, after his bill had asked for $80, he returned the overpayment. "Dear Mr. Sully," she wrote him the next morning. "Had I over-paid you twenty times it could not half repay the obligations I should be under to you for the most excellent terms you have put me upon with my unfortnuate Mug! for I have established it in my mind that I am beautiful. Can you wonder that I should have made such a blunder . . .?"
Sully was born in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England, on June 19, 1783. His parents were both actors, which may have dimmed their son's distrust of make-believe. The family emigrated to this country in 1792. Sully, records Fabian, appeared at least once on the stage, in Charleston, S.C., in 1794, performing as an acrobat with two of his brothers, "whose mixed exertions," claimed the stage bill, "will afford an entertainment highly pleasing." The Sully show begins with a miniature of his father dated 1801. By then the young acrobat had left the stage for art.
Though largely self-taught, he studied for a while with one Mr. Belzons, a Frenchman who had married one of Sully's sisters. "How long he lived and worked with his brother-in-law is not recorded," writes Fabian, "but he reportedly left the household in 1799 after having a fight in which he repeatedly knocked Belzons to the floor."
Sully fled to Richmond, and from Richmond to Norfolk, where he opened his own studio. For the next few years, he was always on the move. In June 1806, Sully was in Warrington, N.C., where he married Sarah Annis Sully, his brother Lawrence's widow. During 1807, Sully worked in Boston with Gilbert Stuart and in New York with John Trumbull before moving to Philadelphia, where, at last, he settled down.
Immediately upon arriving, in December 1807, he announced a cut-rate sale. On a first-come, first-served basis, he'd produce 30 portraits for a cut rate of $30 each, which, so he claimed, was $20 less than his customary fee. Sully worked hard, and quickly, all his life. Eventually he painted about 2,600 pictures, 2,000 of them portraits.
By 1809, he'd earned enough to go to London. Carrying letters from Charles Willson Peale, he arrived at the studio of the famous Benjamin West, who had never turned away a struggling American artist. Sully had arrived with $400, hoping that would support him for three years. Told by painter Charles Bird King that $400 would last less than three months, Sully swallowed hard. "Can you live low?" asked King. "All I want is bread and water," was Sully's game reply.
Thanks in part to his industry, and in part to the fashionable conventions he had borrowed from the portraits of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sully's career blossomed. It may have reached its zenith when, in 1838, once again in London, he was invited to Buckingham Palace to portray the not-yet-anointed queen. "She is short . . ." wrote Sully in his journal, "of good form, particularly the neck and bosom--plump, but not fat . . . I should say decidedly, that she was quite pretty." Victoria, acquiescing, posed for Sully in her ermine robe and her jeweled crown. Rather than exhaust the young queen's patience, Sully had his daughter, Blanche, pose in Victoria's royal costume. History records that as the sole occasion that a citizen of America has worn the English crown.
A number of the portraits here, particularly those of members of his family, are full of winning verve. Sully's full-length Samuel Coates (1812) and his seated Jonathan Williams (1815) are among the strongest, because the most lifelike, pictures in this scholarly, well-done but far from thrilling show.
As Sully aged and weakened, his portraits weakened, too. Sidney George Fisher, a Philadelphia lawyer, noted in his diary on April 1, 1868, that "he Sully is still alive, but very old & very poor." Informed that the city fathers had postponed the widening of the street before the house of the painter and his wife, Sully wrote to thank them, addding, "We shall not trouble you long." Sarah Sully died in 1867. The painter lingered on until Nov. 5, 1872.
"Mr. Sully, Portait Painter" will remain on view at the Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW, through Sept. 5.