In honor of Thomas Sully’s birthday on June 19, we sat down with William Keyse Rudolph, the DMA’s former Associate Curator of American Art. Now the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Dudley J. Godfrey, Jr. Curator of American Art and Decorative Arts, William is currently organizing a retrospective exhibition of the artist. Sully (1783–1872) was born into a theatrical family in England but made a career in America, capturing in paint many of the leading actors and actresses of the time. The exhibition will feature many of these portraits as well as his “fancy pictures”–paintings made for mass appeal, with literary, artistic, and/or imaginary subjects. While at the DMA, William acquired Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire for the collection; the painting will be featured in the traveling exhibition and accompanying catalogue.
Thomas Sully, Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire, 1843, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of the Pauline Allen Gill Foundation
1. You were quoted in Art and Antiques magazine as saying that the DMA’s Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire took your breath away the first time you saw it. Why is this? Why do you consider this work Sully’s “finest fancy picture”?
For one thing, the picture is bigger than you expect. It’s nearly four feet by five feet. It was hanging on the wall of an art dealer’s office, surrounded by books, clutter, papers–and it just jumped out at me, even with all that distraction. It’s a beautifully painted, delicate picture, full of all sorts of grays and pinks that never reproduce well, but that are knock-out in person. And to be honest, it has this great big wonderful orange and white cat frolicking with Cinderella almost right at front and center. At that time, I had an orange and white cat, so the die was cast. I had to love it! And to be fair, former DMA director Jack Lane’s first words upon seeing an image of the painting were “Look at that cat!” He’s a cat person, too. We were also very fortunate that Mrs. Pauline Gill Sullivan, who had been a great benefactor of the DMA, saw the painting when we brought it to the Museum on approval and very graciously agreed to fund its acquisition. Besides having her own fine collection of European and American art, Mrs. Sullivan had a wonderful track record of making acquisitions available to the Museum, such as the commanding 18th-century portrait by Ralph Earl and a really dreamy late 19th-century Frank Duveneck painting of a woman in a red hat, so I was grateful that she responded so well to a big fairytale scene, which was out of her comfort zone in terms of the artist, size, and subject matter.
2. Did you have an interest in Sully and his paintings prior to this acquisition?
Yes. I had lived, worked, and gone to graduate school in Philadelphia for ten years before coming to the DMA, so I was well aware of Sully. He is so closely linked with the city of Philadelphia, where he worked for about sixty years, that it is almost impossible to spend time in Philly and not run into his work in virtually every cultural institution, from museums to libraries and hospitals.
3. How does it make you feel knowing that a key acquisition you made while working at the DMA will now be featured in Milwaukee’s exhibition and catalogue? Was it difficult to leave Cinderella behind?
I am, of course, thrilled! Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire actually gave birth to the show. After I acquired the work, my colleague Carol Eaton Soltis (a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and I began to talk about why this work was so interesting, which led to us proposing a show at the DMA that examined Sully’s total career: portraits as well as fancy pictures like this one. That show, which we began working on in 2005, was originally scheduled for 2009-2010 but ultimately didn’t happen due to timing and other issues. So we are really happy that years later the idea for the show was able to travel with me to Milwaukee and can now finally be seen here and then at the San Antonio Museum of Art. And yes, it was very difficult to leave Cinderella behind. You never, ever forget your first acquisition, and she was mine. I have missed her every day since I left the DMA, and I’m ridiculously excited to have her back with me for a brief time. If you ask gallery attendants at the DMA who remember me, they will tell you I used to go talk to her in the galleries. So my team here has been warned about that! I will probably burst into tears when she comes out of her crate and I see her again.
4. Since Sully also specialized in portraiture, is there any evidence that the figure of Cinderella was based on a real person?
Carol Soltis and I are convinced that the model for Sully was his daughter Rosalie, who posed for many of his works, several of which will also be in the show. She was a very talented painter herself, who died young.
5. Cinderella was painted when Sully was 60 years old. In your opinion, did it bring him the success and attention he hoped for in his later years? Did it help him attract new clients?
Yes and no. Sully hoped to sell the painting much faster than he did. He exhibited it several times in the Northeast and it was made into an engraving, but it took a few years to actually sell to a collector. One of the fascinating stories of this exhibition is how the fancy pictures like Cinderella functioned for Sully as a way to try to counteract the effects of economic crises on the portraiture market. Works like Cinderella were attempts to keep himself in front of the public, which he hoped would both result in sales of the subject pictures and remind clients that he could still turn it on when he wanted to.
6. A later version of Cinderella was (at least at one time) in the collection of Thomas Sully, Jr., of Naples, Florida. Is he a descendant of the painter? Did you ever track down this painting and will it be part of the exhibition and/or catalogue?
He is a descendant. I’ve seen an old reproduction of this picture, and I actually suspect it was the work of one of Sully’s grown children, whom he trained as artists. For that reason, I’ve never really worried about tracing it, as the DMA has the best one. What I’d be curious to see someday is another version of Cinderella done later that apparently shows her with the fairy godmother, but that one is completely obscure and only listed in Sully’s register. If anyone knows where it is, I would love to see it!
7. Do you know yet which works in the exhibition will be installed near the DMA’s Cinderella?
I don’t know exactly where the painting will go in the gallery, but it will be part of a section devoted to Sully’s fancy pictures. So she will live near an amazing picture of Little Nell Asleep in the Curiosity Shop from the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is based on Charles Dickens; and a gigantic, dramatic painting based on a scene from the early American novel The Pilot by James Fenimore Cooper that we’re borrowing from the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama. All three of them will be stunning together, and all were painted around the same time.
Thomas Sully: Painted Performance will be on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum October 11, 2013-January 5, 2014, and then at the San Antonio Museum of Art February 7-May 11, 2014. I hope some of the DMA’s visitors who love this painting will come see the show in one of these places to help celebrate this important painter and this really beautiful picture that the DMA family has been so quick to adopt as a favorite. And thank you to Sue Canterbury, Maxwell L. Anderson, and all the DMA family for making her available for loan.
Reagan Duplisea is the Associate Registrar, Exhibitions at the DMA.