Ariadne by Thomas Sully
Ariadne by Thomas Sully Ariadne by Thomas Sully Ariadne by Thomas Sully
Ariadne by Thomas Sully

Ariadne by Thomas Sully

  • This monumental nude was composed by the celebrated American artist Thomas Sully
  • It captures the Greek heroine Ariadne in her slumber on the island of Naxos
  • The work is based on the famed Ariadne by John Vanderlyn in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • It is a stunning early example of Neoclassicism in American art
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Item No. 30-8860
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Thomas Sully
1783-1872 | American

Ariadne

Oil on canvas

This enticing and sensuous nude is the most daring and experimental work from the celebrated oeuvre of the American artist Thomas Sully. Sully was widely acknowledged as the leading American portrait painter of the mid-19th century, working in a style that recalled the British Romanticism of Sir Thomas Lawrence. This monumental oil on canvas, however, represents his brief experimentation with the French Neoclassical style. Capturing the ancient Greek heroine Ariadne, the impressive work stands out as one of the most accomplished examples of Sully's remarkable career.

The work was painted after the monumental Neoclassical masterpiece entitled Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) by the important American painter John Vanderlyn. Unlike his contemporaries, Vanderlyn was the first artist from the New World to look to France for inspiration rather than London, and his works take on a distinctly Neoclassical flavor that sets him apart from his more Romantic contemporaries. He composed his Ariadne while in Paris, and the work was subsequently shown at the Salon of 1812, where it earned critical praise. Unfortunately for Vanderlyn, the work was not nearly so popular amongst a more puritanical American audience. Unlike France, America had no art historical traditions when it came to the nude, and when he exhibited the work around the United States, it was rejected by American patrons.

American artists, however, applauded the work, and it was copied often. In addition to Sully, the important artist Asher Durand made a series of engravings based on the work, which helped, in part, to popularize the image. Once Sully had completed his version in 1826, he exhibited the painting in the gallery that he operated with James Earle in Philadelphia.

The subject matter of the work is purely Neoclassical, capturing the Cretan princess from Greek mythology Ariadne. According to legend, she played a pivotal role in helping Theseus slay the Minotaur and then fled with the hero aboard his ship, intending to marry him. However, after Theseus seduced Ariadne on the island of Naxos, he abandoned her there - it is this moment that Sully so adeptly captures on canvas. Ariadne is depicted nude in her slumber, unaware that her lover has abandoned her. Her milky white skin and the crimson blanket upon which she lies stands in stark contrast to the American-esque landscape that surrounds her, drawing the viewer's attention to her graceful form. In the background, we catch a small glimpse of the boat that Theseus uses to sail away from the island.

As some of the first instances of a distinctly French influence on American art, both Vanderlyn's and Sully's Ariadne are ahead of their time. In their style and their inspiration, they portend the French-influenced works that will preoccupy American artists a half of a century later.

Born in 1783 in Lincolnshire, England, Thomas Sully was brought as a boy to Charleston, South Carolina, by his actor-parents. His initial instruction in painting was provided by his Charleston schoolmate, Charles Fraser, his brother-in-law, Jean Belzons, and his older brother, Lawrence Sully, all able miniature painters. In 1799, Thomas followed his brother to Richmond, Virginia, and later both artists worked in Norfolk. In 1806, he moved to New York City, and in 1807 traveled to Boston for three weeks of instruction from Gilbert Stuart, who undoubtedly advised the younger painter to go to London.

After eight months of study in London, he returned to Philadelphia, where he would settle for the remainder of his life. He soon became recognized as the most celebrated portrait painter in the city, maintaining his reputation for over half a century. Today, he is regarded as arguably the most accomplished portraitist of the Romantic era in the United States. His works can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and numerous other important American institutions.

Circa 1826

Canvas: 44" high x 74 1/2" wide
Frame: 56 3/8" high x 86 7/8" wide
specifications
Period: 1816-1918
Origin:America
Subject:Nudes
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