Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sully's First Portrait of Rebecca

(For more recent news and a color reproduction of this painting, see "The Rosenbach Acquires Sully Portrait of Rebecca Gratz.") In 1830 Hyman Gratz, one of Rebecca's older brothers, commissioned Thomas Sully to paint her portrait. Many years before, in 1807, when Sully had decided to come to Philadelphia for the winter, he brought a letter of introduction to Rebecca from her friend Washington Irving in New York. In a purely social situation such a letter required the recipient to invite the bearer to dinner, introduce him to some friends and generally be helpful as he settled in. When the bearer of the letter was a man who needed work, the recipient was being asked to be his patron. Rebecca commissioned Sully to copy a miniature of her, and within the year three other Gratz relatives had had their portraits done.

Sully helped his career along by giving discounted prices to those among the first to be painted, and soon settled his wife and children in Philadelphia which would remain his home for the rest of his life. By June of 1809, he had made enough money to keep his family and send himself off to England where he would see Old Masters and study with the reigning English portraitist Thomas Lawrence. Sully returned more technically proficient and a master of the fashionable Lawrence style.

When at last Sully was offered the opportunity to paint his patroness he depicted her as a regal lady of fashion gazing pensively into the middle distance. In doing so he caught for posterity the thoughtful woman who developed and managed good works as well as the wealthy woman who loved clothes and knew how to use them to enhance her good looks.

If you compare the miniature of Rebecca in her 20's done by Malbone (see"Women's Fashions: 1800. Part 1") with this painting, you can see (especially at the jaw line) that Sully's portrait resembles Malbone's. However, Sully has come under attack for excessively flattering his first Philadelphia patron. When he painted her, Rebecca was 49, and although in the portrait she appears a mature woman rather than a girl, not many people would guess her age correctly.

My own theory about Sully is that he was both accurate and inaccurate. He was accurate enough about his sitters' features (perhaps a nip here, a tuck there, but still recognizable), but the glowing complexion he gave them (a trick he learned from Lawrence) is, let us say, not so accurate. Nearly all his sitters --men and women alike --have roses and cream skin tones which no one except a baby has in real life. We are seeing Rebecca without crow's feet, a wrinkled brow or those little lines around the mouth which are the first signs of aging. If you look at the portrait and imagine it with these marks of age, you will still see a very attractive woman, who, at 49, retains a substantial portion of her youthful beauty.

Other posts of possible interest are: A Lost Portrait of Rebecca and Sully's Second Portrait of Rebecca.

(This portrait is in private hands, and I do not know if it has ever been photographed in color. If it has, I would love to see the photo.)

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