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Thomas Sully

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Thomas Sully

Born in England, Thomas Sully (1783-1872) became a prominent portraitist in the United States during the 19th century working primarily in Philadelphia. His fluid brushwork and fine attention to rendering the texture and sheen of fabric, skin tones and other details gave his portraits a softness and charm that held him much in demand. Along with painting the likenesses of many political figures, including Washington, Jefferson, Lafayette and others, he completed many society portraits. Sully painted and taught at the Pennsylvania Academy where he was the director for fifteen years and directly involved with the instruction of emerging artists.
According to the artist's own notes, Sully's portrait of Mrs. McMurtrie and Her Son William took two years to complete. Mrs. McMurtrie was the wife of a highly influential early art patron in the United States, James McMurtrie. The work's romantic style bears little resemblance to a typical portrait of mother and child and is instead reminiscent of a mythological scene. Mrs. McMurtrie reclines in a classical pose, framed with a drape of Roman patterned fabric. Her rosy-cheeked, cherubic son rests on her lap, calmly sleeping. By contrast, the surrounding darkened landscape heightens the already radiant quality of the two figures. Their faces have a creamy luster, further connecting them with the idyllic realm of gods and goddesses. Sully was well known for painting "pretty" faces in all of his portraits, enhancing the natural (or absent) beauty of most of his subjects.

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