In this post I’ll explore Sully’s refined portraits, their connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s pale, ghostlike and mournful literary heroines, and also Poe’s story The Oval Portrait and the way it influenced Jean-Luc Godard in his film Vivre sa Vie (1962).
When I first set eyes on Sully’s paintings, I couldn’t help noticing a slight Gothic, eerie element to them, especially in the painting The Coleman Sisters. Three pale, raven hair beauties with large, dark velvety eyes, dressed in lavender and buttercup yellow coloured dresses seem like they came from one of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. One of Coleman sisters could easily be mistaken for Poe’s Ligeia, Eleonora, Annabel Lee or Madeline Usher; pale, mournful brides, intensely beautiful and intelligent, transcending even death.
Poe actually mentions Sully in his short story ‘The Oval Portrait’, where the protagonist spends a night in a grand and gloomy castle and an old portrait on the wall captures his imagination. It is one of my favourite stories by Poe because, along with typical Poe qualities, it deals with subjects of art and life; a combination which Oscar Wilde later studied to the finest detail. And now a bit of the story which always reminds me of the painting by Sully:
“The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person.”
Thomas Sully (1783-1872), just like Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, is one of those painters that bring something fresh, original and lasting in the world of portrait painting. He was born in England, but at the age of nine moved to the New World with his parents who were actors, first to South Carolina before finally settling in Philadelphia. His style is often compared to that of Thomas Lawrence; it’s a style of refinement, elegance and flattery so you can only guess that he was popular with rich ladies. Sully also painted that famous portrait of young Queen Victoria in 1837.
And yet, in some portraits, like the one of the Coleman sisters, there’s a hint of something darker and dreamier than in Lawrence’s portraits which are pure refinement. Although in this post I decided to focus on the connection between his portraits and Poe’s heroines, I felt a need to add Sully’s Sheet of Figure Studies because it offers an intimate insight into his art. A finished portrait can appear cold and distant, but a piece of paper where you can actually see the artists sketches, feel his brush as it touched the paper, dipped in colour – that’s something truly special and heart-warming.
Now we’ll go back to that portrait of the Coleman sisters and Poe’s story ‘The Oval Portrait’. If you haven’t already read the story, you should because it’s really short and thought-provoking. It deals with themes of art, life and sacrifice. The unnamed young maiden of ‘rarest beauty’ is wedded to a painter who is utterly absorbed in his work, and sees his young wistful bride only as a subject of his art, not as a human being with a desire for love and companionship.
This story seems to have been particularly appealing to the French Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard because in his film Vivre sa Vie or My Life to Live (1962), a young man reads the fragment of the story to the main character Nana, played by Anna Karina who was Godard’s wife at the time, but their marriage was already falling apart because he was apparently too absorbed to even notice her or anything besides his films. Everything he wanted to say, he expressed through the art of film. Just like the painter in the story, Godard saw Anna, his beautiful blue-eyed wife only through the camera lens. You can watch the clip here if you’re interested.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. And, oh my, I’m so glad that I finally wrote it because I’ve been carrying the idea in my mind for the third autumn now.