Press release


September 19 – December 31, 2000
Joan Whitney Payson Galleries, The American Wing

A painting of England's 18-year-old Queen Victoria – the acknowledged masterpiece of Philadelphia artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872) and the work that catapulted him into national prominence – is the focus of an exhibition on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from September 19 through December 31, 2000. Queen Victoria and Thomas Sully documents the creation of this compelling portrait through some 35 works including oil sketches, paintings, drawings, manuscripts, and ephemera. The exhibition sheds new light on an image of one of history's most celebrated women, and commemorates the centennial of Victoria's death in 1901.

Considered one of the most intriguing portrayals of the young queen in her coronation year, as well as an ingenious take on canonical state portraiture, Sully's full-length portrait (Collection of Mrs. Arthur A. Houghton, Jr.) captures Victoria as she steps toward her throne while turning to look back at the viewer. Other highlights of the exhibition are Sully's famous bust-length oil sketch of Victoria (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), for which she sat at Buckingham Palace; Sully's journal entries recording his thoughts about London and the queen; his palette; and the 61 ¼-inch pink ribbon that Victoria gave the artist as a precise record of her height. The works on view are drawn from the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum, as well as from public and private collections in Europe and the United States.

Queen Victoria and Thomas Sully is made possible by Crown Equipment Corporation.

"Thomas Sully's full-length portrait of Queen Victoria was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece," says Carrie Rebora Barratt, Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture and Manager of The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art at the Metropolitan. "Almost single-handedly, he created the vogue for full-length portraiture in America."

A complementary exhibition, Thomas Sully in the Metropolitan, will feature approximately 30 paintings and drawings by Sully from the Museum's collection, and will be on view from September 19, 2000, through January 7, 2001.

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), Thomas Sully was 54 years old in 1837, the year that Alexandrina Victoria (Queen Victoria) succeeded to the British throne. Sully's sitters included such luminaries as Andrew Jackson and the Marquis de Lafayette, but his portraits of women – influenced by the work of English painter Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) – brought him his greatest renown. A 19th-century American art writer, H. T. Tuckerman, observed that Sully's female subjects had "an air of breeding, a high tone, a genteel carriage…"

While preparing for his second study trip to London, Sully, who was British by birth, accepted a commission from the Philadelphia chapter of The Society of the Sons of St. George (a benevolent association devoted to English emigrants) for a life-size portrait of the new British queen.

Sully remained in London for almost a year, negotiating complicated palace protocol in pursuit of a sitting, visiting museums, galleries, and private collections, and meticulously recording his activities in a journal. His 21-year-old daughter Blanch had accompanied him to explore English manners, dress, and society; she too enjoyed an unimaginable experience, as the queen ultimately suggested that Blanch "should sit with the crown jewels instead of herself."

Sully was granted his first sitting with the queen in March 1838. 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 completed later in Philadelphia. In contrast to the many traditional portraits of the young queen, which adopted a formal, frontal view, Sully depicted Victoria turning and looking over her shoulder at the viewer. The pose emphasized what the artist had deemed the queen's most attractive features, the curving line of her neck and her bared shoulder.

Sully recorded in his journal, "the likeness was much commended by all. The Queen quite approved of the style I had adopted and said it was a nice picture." This and other entries from his London journal (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia) and his memoirs (Winterthur Museum and Library, Delaware) are featured in Queen Victoria and Thomas Sully, as well as works that may have inspired the famous portrait. Sully's portrayal of the fictional heroine Musidora (1835, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) shows a young woman bathing in a stream, and surprised by a suitor, modestly turning to hide her face, a pose that resonates in the one Sully later chose for the queen. Sully's only known nude, Musidora, is both chaste and erotic, a combination that appealed to Victorian audiences in the early 19th century.

In Sully's full-length portrait of Victoria, the young queen is depicted in mid-step toward her throne while looking back at the viewer. Sully chose this moment of literal and symbolic ascendance to convey not only the queen's dignity, but her humanity and her femininity.

A scholarly publication accompanies the exhibition. Published by Princeton University Press in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Queen Victoria and Thomas Sully was written by Carrie Rebora Barratt and includes an edited version of Sully's London journal. This publication will be available in the Metropolitan Museum's bookshop in a hardcover edition for $35.

Queen Victoria and Thomas Sully is curated by Carrie Rebora Barratt. Exhibition design is by Michael Langley, Exhibition Designer, with graphics by Constance Norkin, Graphic Designer, and lighting by Zack Zanolli, Lighting Designer.

A variety of educational programs, including lectures and gallery talks, will be presented in conjunction with the exhibition. Edward Wessex, the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth who is better known as Prince Edward, presents a tour of London's greatest palaces, cathedrals, parks, landmarks, and other royal sites on Tuesday, September 19, at 6:00 p.m. On November 28 at 2:30 p.m., Carrie Rebora Barratt and Morrison Heckscher, the Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Curator of American Decorative Arts, will read excerpts from the diaries of Queen Victoria and Thomas Sully. On December 5 at 2:30 p.m., Richard Stone, a present-day royal portraitist, will describe his experiences with the royal family. Tickets may be ordered by calling (212) 570-3949, Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

After its showing at the Metropolitan, Queen Victoria and Thomas Sully will travel to the Wallace Collection in London, where it will be on view from January 22 through April 29, 2001.


July 19, 2000

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