Case Study    

Thomas Sully's

"Portrait of George Washington"

Before Treatment
The provenance for the Washington portrait is seamless. It has had only one owner--the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. The Society acquired the painting through an ingenious idea on the part of its Secretary Emeritus, Lyman Draper. Draper was born in Evans, New York on September 4, 1815. He was educated at Granville College (now Denison University) in Ohio. Draper was fascinated with history and spent years gathering artifacts and historical records. In 1852, he moved from Ohio to Madison, Wisconsin and served as State Superintendent of Public Instruction and Secretary for the new State Historical Society. (11)
Draper wrote to a group of American painters whose reputations would bring prestige to the new institution. He invited them to become Honorary Members. Sully replied on March 10, 1854 with the following, "I have much pleasure in acknowledging the honour conferred on me by the Historical Society of Wisconsin and would be further gratified by being enabled to prove to the Society my willingness to deserve their kindness. Will the Society suggest the name of any person I can paint for them. Would a copy of the portrait of Washington by Stuart be acceptable? or of my likeness of Genl. Jackson? With sincere respect to the gentlemen composing the Institution and to you. I am very respectfully, their and your Obedient Servant. Thos. Sully."(12)
A special meeting of the Society was called on March 18, 1854, and a resolution was adopted thanking Thos. Sully and requesting the portrait of Washington after Stuart. The Society's 1st Annual Report, dated January 2, 1855, states, "Veteran artist Thos. Sully of Phila., has painted and presented to the Society a copy of Stuart's Washington pronounced a faithful and valuable copy of our venerable President, who was personally acquainted with Stuart & has seen the original painting."(13) Sully's Register identifies the painting as, "Copied from painting by Stuart for the Historical Society of Wisconsin, painting begun March 31st, 1854, finished April 19th, 1854. (14) Just 20 days were required for Sully to paint his masterful copy.
The image below is a remarkable stereograph capturing the artist working on a Washington portrait. (15) This undated photo is reproduced from Fabian's article where the caption reads, "Thomas Sully in his Philadelphia studio. Untrimmed albumen print stereograph by an unidentified photographer. This may have been taken in June 1863 when the artist is known to have painted a copy of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington." Sully would have been 80 years old in 1863. From, it is noted that the first stereographs were made in the 1840s. It is possible, then, that the image is actually from 1854, and is a record of Sully, at the age of 71, working on the treated painting.

Thomas Sully in his Philadelphia Studio
(11) Biographical information from State Historical Society of Wisconsin web site. (accessed 27 Nov. 2006).
(12) A draft of Draper's initial letter to Sully does not exist. Sully's reply from a transcription (Corresponding Members Vol. I, No. 457) has been cited but the original letter is missing from the Society's archives.
(13) Special meeting and 1st Annual Report citations provided by the Society to the author.
(14) Sully, Account of Pictures. Inventory #1796. Also, Biddle, Inventory # 1900.
(15) This image is reproduced from Fabian, 21.
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