(arts thomas sully (courtesy of sama)

Striking poses and backgrounds emphasize Thomas Sully’s love for aesthetic beauty in theater and art. Many of Sully’s portraits on display at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) depict how he viewed his subjects as actors.

Sully (1783-1872) was born in England to a family of actors but the family immigrated to the United States for better acting prospects. Sully and his siblings also acted in theaters with their parents, but it was both art and theater that really captured him.

Sully was a popular painter among the elite in early Pennsylvania and Maryland societies and even helped portraiture art become popular in the 1800s. He was constantly booked for commissions for celebrated public figures and the most eminent citizens. Sully was also known for painting elegant and affectionate portraits of women, especially mothers.

Organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, the “Thomas Sully: Painted Performance” exhibit highlights Sully’s famous portraits of key figures in nineteenth century American and British politics, business and culture. Even though his works were portraits, Sully designed the background and props to suit each sitter’s occupation.

“Thomas Sully: Painted Performance” celebrates Sully’s theatrical aesthetic, with a close look at those themes that define his oeuvre. It is his range of subject matter rather than the chronology of his life that carries this exhibition,” as mentioned on the walls of the exhibit.

One of his famous series of portraits are the Frances “Fanny” Anne Kemble portraits. Sully met the theater actress in 1832 and maintained a close friendship because of their mutual love of theater.

There are 13 portraits of Kemble, and most of them were painted by memory. Only four of the 13 are traditional portraits. His most famous portrait of her is “Frances Anne Kimble As Beatrice,” where she is posing as the character Beatrice in William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Since this particular portrait was based on his memory of Kemble, the borders and background of her portrait are smeared as if the audience is recalling her image. Kimble’s Beatrice also looks over her shoulder with a coy smile, possibly to emphasize Kimble portraying the playful and clever Beatrice.

Another Sully portrait that depicts his love of theater and honor for his friends is “The Reverend James Abercrombie.” Sully focuses on Reverend Abercrombie’s welcoming gesture, but it is the theatrical background that highlights the reverend’s character.

Abercrombie seems to be rehearsing a sermon or conducting a lecture with numerous books on the desk and a painting of the Crucifixion behind the reverend, showing the audience how the reverend is a well-learned faithful man.

“The composition emphasizes the Reverend Abercrombie in his study, in action, surrounded by the props of his study,” according to curator William Keyse Rudolph’s written statement.

Sully also used the setting to define personality in his portraits of presidents and royalty. The most recognizable one would be his portrait of President Andrew Jackson that was also used for the twenty-dollar bill.

The artist highlights Jackson’s authority and seriousness by not having a background but rather a beige background. Jackson sat down for Sully twice — once before he became president and the other right before he died in 1845.

The portrait exhibited at SAMA is the copy Sully made for Jackson in 1845. His decision to not design a background for the portrait illustrates Jackson’s power as a strong political leader because the audience only focuses on Jackson’s facial expression.

However, Jackson’s portrait does contain theatrical elements because Sully uses light to highlight Jackson as if he was the protagonist in a play.

Another famous portrait that is also prominent in the SAMA collection is Sully’s portrait of Queen Victoria I of England. In 1837, Sully was commissioned by the Society of Sons of Saint George in Philadelphia to paint a full-length portrait of the young queen.

Sully portrays the queen as regal but relaxed because of her turned posture. Unlike most monarchs, who are painted sitting down and facing the audience with a stern look, Queen Victoria’s portrait seems inviting and illustrates her youth.

The complementing ruby red and white colors exhibit Sully’s love for theatrical aesthetics, and Sully also made the queen look as if she was in a Shakespeare production. She is looking at the audience like she is about to perform a soliloquy. And she is inviting the audience to look at her, not the coronation crown or throne.

In addition to the exhibit, SAMA and its curators will be lecturing about Thomas Sully, his themes and his works for free on Tuesdays (Mar. 11, Apr. 8, Apr. 15) at 6 p.m.

Thomas Sully: Painted Performance will run until May 11. There is a $5 special exhibit admission price for this exhibit. Regular admission for seniors (65+) is $7, $10 for adults, students and military for $5 with ID and free for children under 12. Admission is free for all on Tuesdays 4 p.m.-9 p.m. and Sundays 10 a.m.-12 p.m. For more information on hours and lecture series, visit samuseum.org.

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