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Exhibitions/ Queen Victoria and Thomas Sully

Queen Victoria and Thomas Sully

September 19–December 31, 2000

Exhibition Overview

The highlight of the career of the Philadelphia portraitist Thomas Sully (1783–1872) was his commission to paint young Queen Victoria. Thomas Sully was fifty-four years old in 1837, when Alexandrina Victoria succeeded to the British throne. Already established as Philadelphia's leading portrait painter and filling the void left by the deaths of renowned American portraitists Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) and Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), Sully painted other famous sitters, including such luminaries as Andrew Jackson and the Marquis de Lafayette. It was his portraits of women, however—influenced by the work of English painter Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830)—that brought him his greatest renown. The nineteenth-century American art writer, H. T. Tuckerman, observed that Sully's female subjects had "an air of breeding, a high tone, a genteel carriage."

In March 1838, Sully was granted his first sitting with the queen. By the end of May he had completed the bust-length oil sketch that would serve as the basis for the full-length portrait he would later complete in Philadelphia. This exhibition, which commemorates the anniversary of Queen Victoria's death in 1901, explores the artist's experiences in London during the exciting coronation year and the success of his ingenious portraits of the queen. Oil portraits, wash drawings, and graphite sketches by Sully, along with various mementos of his trip, manuscripts, and a selection of related works by other artists, combine to document the creation of this compelling portrait of one of history's most celebrated women.

In contrast to the many traditional portraits of the eighteen-year-old queen, which adopted a formal, frontal view, Sully depicted Victoria turning and looking over her shoulder at the viewer, a pose that emphasized the curving line of her neck and her bared shoulder—the features Sully deemed most attractive. The composition of the queen's pose echoes one of Sully's earlier paintings, which depicts a young woman bathing in a stream, who, surprised by a suitor, modestly turns to hide her face. Sully's only known nude, Musidora (1835), is both chaste and erotic, a combination that appealed to Victorian audiences in the early nineteenth century.

This exhibition is being presented in conjunction with Thomas Sully in the Metropolitan.

The exhibition is made possible by Crown Equipment Corporation.

Scholarly publication published by Princeton University Press.