Thomas Sully Biography & Facts


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.

    Thomas Sully, self portrait, 1821.
    Thomas Sully, self portrait, 1821.


      Quick facts

      • Born: 19 June 1783 at Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England.
      • Died: 5 November 1872 at Philadelphia, PA.
      • Thomas Sully was an English-born American painter, primarily known for his portrait work, who became one of the most prominent American portraitists of the early 19th century.
      • He is famous for his portrait of Queen Victoria, painted in 1838, which was the first official state portrait of the young queen and significantly enhanced his reputation.
      • Sully’s most renowned work is “The Passage of the Delaware,” depicting George Washington crossing the Delaware River, an iconic moment from the American Revolutionary War.
      • He painted over 2,000 portraits, including notable figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Marquis de Lafayette, and Charles Carroll.
      • Sully’s style was influenced by the Romantic movement, characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism, which is evident in his dramatic and expressive portraits.
      • He contributed to the development of American art by training and influencing a generation of American painters through his work and teaching.
      • Although primarily a portraitist, Sully also painted historical, mythological, and landscape subjects, showcasing his versatility as an artist.
      • Buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA.


      Thomas Sully, American portrait painter, was born in England at Horncastle, Lincolnshire in 1783. His parents were both actors and he was the fourth of nine children — the youngest son. In 1792 when Sully was nine, the family immigrated to the United States and settled in Charleston, South Carolina.

      He was apprenticed to his brother-in-law, a French emigrée miniaturist, Jean Belzons, and in 1999 he joined his older brother Lawrence, a miniature and device painter, in Richmond, Virginia. After Lawrence’s premature death, Sully married his sister-in-law (Sarah Annis Sully), and in 1805 and they moved to New York City. For a time they also stayed in Hartford, Connecticut and Boston (where he was a pupil of Gilbert Stuart), before they permanently settled in Philadelphia in 1808.

      Sully entered into an agreement with a group of prominent citizens in 1809 that enabled him to embark upon a year-long trip to study art in London. He was a student at the studio of Benjamin West and he studied with Henry Fuseli.

      He returned to the United States in 1810. Following the deaths of Gilbert Stuart (d. 1826) and Charles Willson Peale (d. 1827), he became the leading American portrait painter.

      Sully again visited London in 1837 — this time with a commission from the St George’s Society of Philadelphia to paint a full-length portrait of Queen Victoria. Following his return, he produced an average of 35 to 40 portraits a year for the remainder of his life.

      Among his subjects were Thomas Jefferson, Marquis de Lafayette, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Andrew Jackson, King Charles, Benjamin Rush, and Washington Irving.

      Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, 1821.
      Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, 1821.

      Like other artists of his day, Thomas Sully probably aspired to paint a greater number of historical paintings but realized that portrait commissions would support his family. His most dramatic painting, in the historical style of John Trumbull, was The Passage of the Delaware (1819) — completed 32 years before Emanuel Leutze’s much more famous Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851).

      The Passage of the Delaware, Thomas Sully, 1819.
      The Passage of the Delaware, Thomas Sully, 1819.

      Sully died in Philadelphia in 1872.

      An industrious painter who worked rapidly, Sully left about 2,000 portraits, a number of miniatures, and more than 500 subject and historical pictures. His paintings are elegant and romantically warm, emphasizing an economy of form and of color, though his later work suffers from a sentimentality that was popular in the mid-19th century.

      Related posts