WORDS Carol Caldwell
Thomas Sully is the fourth and current Thomas of a revered artistic line descending from his great-great-great- grandfather, the portrait painter of presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, of Her Majesty Queen Victoria and the Marquis de Lafayette, among countless other politicians, musicians, and other early American worthies as well as “fancy pictures,” often inspired by literature or mythology. The current Thomas Sully, born in l959 in Virginia, has recently moved to Nashville, having painted his way around the South from Norfolk to Asheville to Atlanta to Charleston to New Orleans while working from his illustrious ancestors’ subject matters: portraits and landscapes in oil and watercolor.
He studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and has rendered illustrations for The New Yorker and painted costumes for the American Ballet Theatre. He speaks of working towards an understanding of the rhetoric of landscape painting in order to update some of the ideas begun by Turner and Constable, Claude Lorrain, and Caspar David Friedrich, as well as Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School. “My approach to landscape painting today involves a combination of abstraction and representation,” he explains. While admitting to nostalgia for another America, he says that some of his magic landscapes might be described as “wonderland scenes” that deal with workings of the mind and the mystery of existence in this contemporary world. Sully says, “There’s a point where naturalism doesn’t go far enough towards acknowledging the energies in the landscape that affect you but lie beyond appearances.”
Prescott, His Eye, 2014, Watercolor on mammoth ivory, 1.25” x 1.0625”
Self-portrait, Eye, 2013, Watercolor on mammoth ivory, .75” x 1.0625”
Vandy, Her Eye, 2012, Watercolor on mammoth ivory, .75” x .625”
Sully describes one of his first landscapes painted after coming to Nashville as affected by “the constant metamorphosis occurring in nature and ourselves, which the language of painting and color is uniquely suited to explore.” The title of this painting is Ambition. It depicts what’s known in literature as the two-stories principle of archetypal odysseys: Somebody leaves home, or a stranger comes to town. What Sully calls “the calculated quaintness” of Ambition, the contemporary skyline of Nashville gleams in the distance like a land of dreams. The young hero stands foreground with his back to us, stopped in his tracks. He is the one who has left home with nothing to his name but a guitar. Emerging from the wilderness, he stands in awe of all that he beholds, perceiving the first intimation of how the hope of his heart might come to be realized.
“My approach to landscape today involves abstraction and representation. It’s not about nostalgia; it’s more about feeling honored to have a conversation with those who have gone before us. The sculptor Robert Smithson,” he says, “was one of the first to use the term ‘postmodern’, and he spoke of time as having a crystalline structure rather than a linear one, where remote futures can intersect with remote pasts.”
“ My approach to landscape today involves abstraction and representation. It’s not about nostalgia; it’s more about feeling honored to have a conversation with those who have gone before us.”
He also paints on paper. “I like working on paper because it is immediate. You can explore ideas and experiment without having to stretch a whole canvas. Arches, the renowned company in France, recently came out with a paper you can work on directly with oil. This piece, Lux Aeterna, was a transitional piece on my way towards abstraction. I was inspired by late Turner—he was painting almost pure light by that point. Nocturne, of course, is riffing on Whistler.”
Sully became fascinated with portrait miniatures, each about two inches in diameter, which became popular during the reign of Henry VIII. Some of these are known as “eye portraits” and were usually exchanged between lovers to be worn under a collar or on a pendant where no one else could see them—tiny precise cameos of one eye of the beloved or a lost love which was kept close to the body as an intimate personal remembrance. These cameos were usually painted on ivory. Thomas has gotten around to using ivory in our time by painting his lovers’ eyes on pieces of 10,000-year-old wooly mammoth tusks that have been recently uncovered in Siberia and are legally available.
These tiny portraits, which are eerily beautiful and equally startling, were worn as a protest against separation, whether by death or the necessity of the lover’s embarking on a long journey or off to war, as a token of constant, undying affection. The artist says the connection of love and loss is intrinsic to the genre of portrait miniatures. “They possess some of the sacred power of the icons of Byzantium and Russia. They serve as charged conduits between the viewer and the subject. When they include a lock of hair, they take on the qualities of a reliquary.”
The contemporary eye portrait was informed for him by interest in an optical experience of the world after the invention of the camera. Thomas Sully tells a personal story of how some of these miniatures from history have been preserved through the centuries: “As hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans when I was living there, I imagined what went through the minds of people in Pompeii. I put the eye portraits in a box along with my watercolors, brushes, vellum, and my late dog’s ashes and fled the approaching floodwaters through howling winds.”
Thomas Sully describes himself as a mixologist and “drunk on color, light, the tension between flatness and depth. It’s the physicality of paint,” he says. “For me, art is a disciplined intoxication.”
See more of Thomas Sully’s work at www.thomassully.com.