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New Exhibit Offers Glimpse at 19th Century Celebrity Life

Courtesy of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

If you thought the celebrity publicity machine was a modern-day phenomenon, think again.

Years before the artistic pictures of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, centuries before People magazine photo spreads, celebrities turned to painters to put their likeness before an adoring public. And in the 19th Century, one of the leading painters of well-known Americans from the theater – and celebrities from around the world – was Thomas Sully.

A retrospective of Sully’s work, Thomas Sully: Painted Performance, has just opened at the Milwaukee Art Museum.  It features images of celebrities from the theater world, as well as other well-known people, such as the portrait of President Andrew Jackson that adorns the $20 bill.

Other artists may have painted portraits of celebrities in that period, but Thomas Sully's work was distinctive - and that's what drew the celebrities to him in the first place.  "They knew they would get something different," says Carol Eaton Soltis, co-curator of the exhibit, and project associate curator of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  "He gave these very lively portraits, and while they were suave and beautiful and refined, they were also full of human interest."

Sully himself was born into a family of performers, which also informed his approach.  "He creates a very beautiful environment for his people to be in, because they're coloristic and full of movement of light and shadow," Soltis says.

At the same time, co-curator William Rudolph - director of exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum - says Sully had his finger on the pulse of pop culture, in the style of artists like Jeff Koons and Richard Avedon.  "If Sully were painting today," Rudolph says, "I guarantee you he would have attempted a tasteful version of 50 Shades of Grey.  Sully would have painted a scene from it and made it as dramatic and beautiful as he knew how."

The exhibit also features so-called "fancy pieces" from Sully's collection, which have not gotten the same level of critical attention as his portraits of celebrities.

Thomas Sully: Painted Performance is on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum until early January.