Painting, Portrait of Patrick Henry (1736-1799)

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  • Artist: Thomas Sully (1783-1872); Afterwork: Lawrence Sully (1769-1804)
  • America, Mid-Atlantic, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
  • 1815
  • Oil on canvas
  • 1958-3,A

Considering Patrick Henry's immense stature as a Revolutionary statesman and orator and his notability as Virginia's first elected governor, surprisingly few life portraits were made of him. Least well-known is a series of quick sketches executed in 1797 by Benjamin Latrobe. The only other images credibly taken from life are two miniatures, one done by an unidentified artist, the other executed in 1795 by Lawrence Sully (1769-1804). The last was used by Lawrence's brother, Thomas, as a guide in creating the full-scale oil now owned by Colonial Williamsburg. Thomas Sully relied heavily on his brother's miniature without slavishly copying it. In order to achieve the desired overall size as well as appropriate proportions and formatting, he added the major portion of Henry's torso and greatcoat. More insightfully, he altered the direction and focus of Henry's gaze and added spectacles to the top of his head. Far less obvious are "slight alterations to the wig," which Henry's grandson claimed were suggested by Chief Justice John Marshall. Thomas's typical, loose, slashing brushwork also distinguishes his large oil from his brother's more minutely detailed and painstakingly executed miniature. The result is a portrait that Henry's wife and children called "the best likeness they ever saw" of Henry. (In an ironic twist of fate, one of Henry's sons later denounced Lawrence's life miniature as "indifferent").

Originally, Colonial Williamsburg's painting was commissioned from Thomas Sully by William Wirt (1772-1834), Henry's admirer and biographer whose Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry initially appeared in 1817 bearing, as its frontispiece, an engraving after this likeness. In Sully's manuscript list of completed paintings, he noted that he began work on this, his first Henry portrait, on November 11, 1815, finishing it the following November 20, and charging Wirt $100 for the effort.

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