Thomas Sully was Philadelphia’s leading portraitist in the early nineteenth century. This work displays his characteristically fluid use of paint, a skill he learned in London in emulation of his mentor, the British Romantic portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence. Even in an era devoted to showing children as truly childlike, Sully’s portrait of his nine-year old son, Thomas Wilcocks Sully, is unusually informal. The young Thomas is situated off-center, creating a feeling of movement and immediacy. He wears an open shirt, rumpled jacket, and straw hat. Such less restrictive costume was becoming more usual for children as it was acknowledged that play was beneficial and healthful for young people.
The detail of the torn hat suggests some real, human mischief on the part of the subject that is not apparent in the rosy sweetness of his face. The viewer wonders how the hat got torn, suggesting an element of narrative rare in a portrait and tying the picture to genre painting. The tear in the hat brim also afforded Sully the opportunity to show off his ability to paint a face under a complex pattern of light and shadow. Like Copley in A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham)[1978.297], Sully felt free to experiment in a portrait that was not a commissioned work.
Sully’s experimentation with such unusual effects may reflect the disappointing turn of events in his career. By 1820 his painting sales had been down for several years, and he was uncertain whether he would be able to continue making his living as a portraitist. Sully may have thought that a more informal kind of portrait might sell. Although the artist referred to the painting as “a study” and completed it in three days, he signed and dated it as he did his finished works. He also priced it at $100, twice the amount he usually asked for a picture of its size. 
Sully’s gamble paid off. He sold the painting for his asking price just a year later, to Boston merchant and art collector John Hubbard. The artist went on to be much admired for his natural portrayals of children. Young Thomas Wilcocks Sully grew up to become a well-regarded portraitist in his own right.
1. “Account of Pictures by Thomas Sully,” roll N18, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. The listing for July 11, 1820, notes “Head size. Thos. Sully, my son, a study.”
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).