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Image of Tom Wharton

Thomas Sully , (Jun 19, 1783–Nov 5, 1872)

Tom Wharton

1820s-30s
30 1/8 in. x 25 1/8 in. (76.52 cm x 63.82 cm)

Medium and Support: Oil on canvas
Credit Line: Museum purchase
Accession Number: 1969.15

Commentary

One of the leading artists of the nineteenth century, Thomas Sully (1783–1872) painted over twenty-five hundred portraits in his seventy-year career. Born in England and raised in South Carolina, Sully settled permanently in Philadelphia in 1808. Living to be almost ninety, he was considered "the" portrait painter in Philadelphia for over half a century.

Encouraged by Gilbert Stuart to study in London, Sully sought out Benjamin West as did all young American artists. Primarily a history painter, the aging master in turn directed the young artist to Sir Thomas Lawrence, then Britain's leading portraitist. Although Sully found Sir Lawrence's paintings to be "too much loaded with paint, and the red and yellow overpowering," he returned to Philadephia in 1810 with a looser and freer painterly style reflecting the influence of Lawrence and the emergence of Romanticism. Sully adapted this new style to his Philadelphia patrons, soon becoming known as "the American Lawrence."

Like Lawrence, Sully catered to a bourgeois society with aristocratic pretentions. The Whartons were a prestigious and established Philadelphia family and Sully painted portraits of several members of the clan. It is not yet known for certain which Thomas Wharton is depicted in this portrait, however the farm or country house in the upper left background may identify the sitter as Thomas Lloyd Wharton (1799–1869) who was raised on his father's county seat at Tacony and later became owner of a farm. The classical column behind the sitter lends the painting a formality and grandeur typical of grand manner portraits of aristocracy and aids in linking the sitter, and by extension his family, to this elite portion of society.

The fluid brushwork and vivid colors of this portrait would seem to date the painting to some time after Sully's return from Europe. Tom's tousled hair and far-off gaze are not only typical child-like attributes suggesting a dynamic, energetic personality, but are carefree, Romantic characteristics reflecting the elevation of emotion above intellect and intuition over judgment. The rather brooding landscape is yet another romantic element used to express inner emotionalism. Tom's fine features and creamy complexion are typical of Sully's idealized figures. As art historian Wayne Craven has noted, it appears that Sully never painted a person who was not handsome or beautiful.
Allison Kemmerer

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