Thomas Sully (1783-1872)
Property from the Collection of an Important Ohio Industrialist
Thomas Sully (1783-1872)

General George Washington

Details
Thomas Sully (1783-1872)
General George Washington
signed with the artist's initials and dated 'TS 1842.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
36 x 27 in. (91.4 x 68.6 cm.)
Painted in 1841.
Provenance
The artist.
Colonel John Wheeler, acquired from the above.
Mr. James C. Dobbin, Secretary of the Navy.
Mr. James C. Dobbin, Jr., by descent.
Hon. Charles M. Stedman, acquired from the above, 1890.
Mr. Chester A.W. Best, New Bedford, Massachusetts.
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, acquired from the above.
Mrs. Daniel H. Carstairs, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, acquired from the above, 1919.
The A.B. Closson Jr., Co., Cincinnati, Ohio.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1942.
Literature
E. Biddle, M. Fielding, The Life and Works of Thomas Sully, 1783-1872, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1921, p. 310, no. 1897.
E. Arens, First Retrospective of American Art, Under the Direction of Mrs. Albert Sterner, Inaugurating the Junior Art Patrons of America, New York, 1921, p. 19, frontispiece illustration (as George Washington on Horseback).
Exhibited
New York, Fine Arts Building, First Retrospective of American Art, Under the Direction of Mrs. Albert Sterner, Inaugurating the Junior Art Patrons of America, May 6-21, 1921, no. 45 (as George Washington).

If you wish to view the condition report of this lot, please sign in to your account.

Sign in
View condition report

Lot Essay

Widely acknowledged as America's leading portrait painter of the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Sully painted over two thousand likenesses during a seventy year career. Amongst his patrons were the most notable figures of the era, including Presidents Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson as well as English nobility, such as Lord Byron and even the young Queen Victoria. While most of his paintings were executed from life, Sully identified himself as a "History and Portrait Painter," asserting his historical paintings as prominent in his career. The present work is an accomplished example of Sully's rare depictions of American history and a masterpiece of his career. This particular likeness of George Washington, atop his steed and nobly surveying the battlefield, is an iconic representation of a national hero and a moving symbol of America's past and present glory.

Although he is well-known as an American painter, Sully was actually born in Lincolnshire, England, and moved to Virginia at age nine with his family. Both of his parents were actors, but Sully chose to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Lawrence, a miniaturist, and try his hand at painting. In the early years of his career, he travelled throughout the Northeast as well as abroad to study under the most noted artists of the time. His artistic style was greatly shaped by a trip to London in 1809-10, during which he worked closely under Benjamin West, an American painter acting as president of England's Royal Academy. West saw great potential in Sully, writing in a letter, "I find him every way worthy and promising, the success of Mr. Sully in his profession as a painter is so much to be desired." (E. Biddle and M. Fielding, The Life and Works of Thomas Sully, Philadelphia, 1921, p. 2) He particularly encouraged Sully's aptitude for portraiture, introducing him to the most prominent English portrait painter of the time, Sir Thomas Lawrence. Sully's successful adaptation of that artist's loose brushwork and use of color earned him the nickname, the "American Lawrence." His time in England also predisposed Sully to aspire to historic paintings, which were held in higher esteem than portraiture in European art circles.

Closer to home, one of the most important influences on Sully's work was Gilbert Stuart. The leading portraitist of America in the early 1800s, Stuart became a mentor for Sully after they met in 1807 at Stuart's Boston studio. Sully was immediately impressed, recalling of the experience, "I had the privilege of standing by the artist's chair during the sitting, a situation I valued more at that moment than I shall ever again appreciate any station on earth." (The Life and Works of Thomas Sully, p. 9) Stuart not only let Sully observe his process but also critiqued the artist's portraits and offered encouragement and technical advice. He also importantly introduced Sully to the subject of George Washington, whom Stuart had painted from life in 1794-96. In fact, Stuart's most famous likeness of Washington, known as the Athenaeum portrait, was an inspiration for both Sully and the image seen on the dollar bill. Art critic John Neal said in 1823, "Though a better likeness of him were shown to us, we should reject it; for, the only idea that we now have of George Washington, is associated with Stuart's Washington...If Washington should appear on earth, just as he sat to Stuart, I am sure that he would be treated as an imposter[sic], when compared with Stuart's likeness of him, unless he produced his credentials." (C.K. McClafferty, The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2011, p. 5) Since Sully only painted Washington after the President's death, he carefully formed his likeness of the man through research of sculptures, prints, literature, oral traditions, and portraits by his mentor and others. Ultimately presenting a face very similar to Stuart's famous version, Sully's George Washington is immediately recognizable as the national icon.

According to his own record books, Sully eventually painted twenty one portrait images of George Washington in various sizes and settings. They spanned almost his entire career, the first completed in 1807 and the last in 1871. Being a professional artist with a constant eye on profits, Sully repeated the subject in order to feed on the continuing desire of Americans for their own national heroes to admire and emulate. Barbara Mitnick explains, "[Washington's] image is the one to which we have turned for sustenance during virtually every period in our history. When the nation was young and lacked inherent traditions or heroes, Washington was idolized, his face and form symbolically existing on the pedestal from which King George III had been removed. By the mid-nineteenth century, when ordinary citizens began taking their places as full participants in American life, Washington served as a hero in visual and literary portrayals." (B.J. Mitnick, W.S. Ayres, George Washington: American Symbol, New York, 1999, p. 7)
This equestrian portrait accordingly depicts Washington as an inspiring leader, observing the battlefield with calm and steady determination. He overwhelmingly dominates the scene, sitting atop a tall horse and holding his hat out to his side, against a background of comparatively diminutive soldiers involved in the fight. Standing out from the expanse of smoke and cloud behind him, Washington is the only solid figure in the literal and metaphorical haziness of the battlefield. Sully once viewed and sketched Jacques-Louis David's famous Napoleon Crossing the Alps at Joseph Bonaparte's home in Bordentown, New Jersey. That image of a strong leader calmly directing a spirited mount with one hand may have influenced this portrait of Washington's aura of "gentilezza which necessarily distinguishes the finest of heroes." (Fehl, as cited in J. Clubbe, Byron, Sully, and the Power of Portraiture, Hampshire, England, 2005, p. 94)

A contemporary Henry T. Tuckerman explained, "[Sully] has an extremely dexterous way of flattering, without seeming to do so; of crystallizing better moments, and fixing an air of breeding, a high tone, and a genteel carriage." (M.H. Fabian, Mr. Sully, Portrait Painter, Washington, D.C., 1983, p. 6) However, unlike David, Sully does not depict the General as a jubilant, triumphant ideal but rather as a more realistic leader, continuing ahead with confidence despite the substantial obstacles behind and ahead. His expression appears more contemplative than smug. John Clubbe observes, "He appears pensive, weary of death and tragedy...Aware of the human cost, Sully's hero turns his back upon the violent fray, his countenance grim. [Equestrian Portrait of General George Washington] is not an iconic pater patriae, but a suffering yet strong Romantic hero." (J. Clubbe, p. 103)

Along with his more genuinely affected depiction of Washington's countenance, Sully also highly valued realism in his portrayals of historically significant places and events. For paintings of Washington acting as General, Sully explained in a broadside circa 1820 that he based the historical events upon the Memoirs of General Wilkinson. He was also known to actually visit the sights of his war scenes, such as the spot along the Delaware River where Washington's boat crossed. Because of this tendency toward historical accuracy, scholars have attempted to determine which battle Sully depicts in the present portrait. By 1940, the scene had been identified as the Battle of Trenton, in which Washington, after crossing the Delaware, successfully surprised a sleeping camp of Hessians on Christmas night 1776. However, since Washington would have been a young man during that battle and not the gray-haired icon in this portrait, Sully's emphasis on historical exactitude suggests that it was a later event. A likely possibility is the Whiskey Riots of 1794, when Pennsylvania farmers protested an alcohol tax that lowered their profits. This explanation is bolstered by an 1843 catalog of the Eight Annual Exhibition of the Artists' Fund Society of Philadelphia that lists a Sully portrait under the title "Equestrian Portrait of Gen. Washington reviewing his troops, in the year 1794, pending the Whiskey Riots." This historic event is significant because it was the first occasion where the authority of the federal government over a state was invoked according to the Militia Law of 1792. The Whiskey Riots were also the only time in which a sitting president of the United States has personally led troops into battle.

No matter which conflict the portrait portrays, Sully's Washington shines as a beacon of light for his fellow soldiers and for the citizens of his country. In December 1844, a columnist for Godey's
Lady's Book
wrote, "[Sully's] late equestrian portrait of Washington is a magnificent affair, and ought to be bought by some state capitol or in the legislative halls, or the President's mansion at the seat of government of the United States." (J. Clubbe, p. 103) A very
similar composition to the present work is prominently displayed in the headquarters of the Union League of Philadelphia.


CAPTIONS
Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait), unfinished, 1796, oil on canvas, 48 x 37 in. (121.9 x 94 cm). Jointly owned by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo Credit: Art Resource, NY

Thomas Sully (1783-1872), The Passage of the Delaware, oil on canvas, 146 1/2 x 207 in. (372.11 x 525.78 cm), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph ©2012 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Jacques Louis David (1748-1825),Bonaparte Crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass, 1801, oil on canvas, 260 x 221 cm. Chateaux de Malmaison et Bas-Preau, Reuil-Malmaison, France. Photo Credit: Erich Lessing Art Resource, NY


Thomas Sully, Equestrian Portrait of General George Washington, 1842, oil on canvas, 148 x 112 in. Purchased from the artist, by members of the Union League, by subscription, 1863. Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia
;

Related Articles

View all
Collecting guide: American Imp auction at Christies
Silver and gold: luxury holida auction at Christies
‘Frank Lloyd Wright is a movem auction at Christies

More from American Art

View All
View All