- Title: Sarah Sully and Her Dog, Ponto
- Artist: Thomas Sully
- Date: 1848
- Medium: Oil on canvas
- Source: San Antonio Museum of Art
When I visited the San Antonio Museum of Art, I became interested in the presented portraiture collection. I feel that the painting Sarah Sully and Her Dog, Ponto allows tracing the techniques and styles of its era, as well as of the chosen artist. Thomas Sully finished the painting, which depicts his wife Sarah Sully, in 1848 (see fig. 2). The work is 61×41 inches and is an oil on canvas painting with a stylistic influence from the romanticism movement (see fig. 1).
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In this portrait, Sarah is calm and deep in thought, leading the viewer to a feeling of soft melancholy. The techniques and colors used by the artist help amplify this feeling and allow the audience to empathize with an easily identifiable motherly figure. Thus, the portrait may be presented as an exemplary work in terms of both technique and evocation of emotion by leading the viewer to empathize with the subject.
The painting is a carefully composed representation of Thomas Sully’s love and admiration for his wife, where in my opinion, respect is the more substantial feeling. The 1848 work is a big full-body portrait of Sarah Sully, whom the artist depicts as being a woman of respectable age. She is sitting in a chair, wearing a solemn black dress and feeding her dog. Her brown dog, Ponto, is on the left, looking up at the woman’s hands that are holding a crumbled biscuit on her lap. Next to her, on the viewer’s right, there is a dark vase with bright summer flowers, which give the painting a small burst of color. The use of oil paint on canvas helps create a smooth, dream-like background, in which a creeping vine may be seen, indicating the outdoors.
Sarah’s face is one of the essential parts of the painting’s composition. She is looking away from the audience and all other objects. She has a faint smile and seems to be deep in thought. Her hands are the only depiction of movement in the painting, slowly feeding her dog. Ponto is painted as a calm and waiting animal, demonstrating gentle restraint. There is no action in the rest of the painting, which is dominated by still life and dark colors. Therefore, the speed of the artwork may be identified as slow and measured, defined by the calmness and measured-out nature of the presented gestures.
The brighter and lighter colored background contrasts with the black chroma of the forefront. Together with the dark color palette, the smooth strokes create a refined and soothing texture. The warmness of the chosen colors, which are dark brown, beige, and black, balance the calmness of motion. Both Sarah’s dress and the dog’s short fur are sleek and closely resemble life-like textures.
The material of the dress is heavy, characterized by softly falling layers of cloth and lightly rumpled sleeves. It has no distinct pattern but is instead wholly monochromatic. Sarah’s headpiece is painted with white color, giving it a wisp-like texture that contrasts with her dark hair. The light reflecting off the dog’s collar helps further indicate the light source that is positioned left of the viewer. Nonetheless, the overall value of the painting is quite dark.
The painting is realistic, depicting the artist’s wife as she may have been in real life. Her body is proportional, and her dog is illustrated as medium-sized. Apart from her figure, the background is blurred and hard to make out beyond the wall that ends directly behind Sarah. Nonetheless, all secondary visible objects are easily identifiable, such as the vase and the vine. There is no text integrated into the painting, not even Sully’s signature. No extra details are present, with all the painting’s components set around the figure of the artist’s wife. Thus, the mood of the artwork is maintained as reflective, tranquil, and easily identifiable with lacking distracting elements.
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A mixture of lines is present in the painting, with a dominant upward-moving vector. The portrait orientation, the wall behind Sarah, the stripes of the chair, and her figure’s position help maintain the idea of vertical movement. Curved lines outline her dress and the dog’s spine, which allows the painter to make their depiction softer. Balance is thus persevered in all aspects of the painting, for example, when the dark figure of the dog counterbalances the bright flowers in the vase. Additionally, Sarah’s pale face is made more evident as a black dress covers her body.
While there is no repetition of elements or patterns, there is a slow rhythm present in the painting. The blending of the black dress and brown dog through curves indicates movement. Action is further encouraged by Sarah’s hands, which are breaking apart a cookie. Another part of it lies in her lap, creating an idea of a repetitive pinching motion. This action has been going on for a time, is proceeding now in front of the viewer, and will be continued indefinitely. Purposefully, the painter eliminates the background of the portrait, focusing only on the figure of his wife and the things that immediately surround her. Therefore, Sarah’s character is the centerpiece of the painting, with the scale drawing her body into focus while the colors outline her face and hands.
The painting seems to be direct in meaning, being a portrait of the artist’s significant other. All the underlying tones and clues lead to depicting the kindness and beauty of his beloved. The flowers may be a comparison of her beauty, as they stand in the same color vase as her dress. Nonetheless, physical attractiveness is not her defining characteristic, as she is also shown as compassionate, gentle, and thoughtful. The painter attempted to demonstrate the perfectness of a cherished woman. Her gesture of looking away from the viewer and all the other objects in the artwork instilled in me an atmosphere of being an accidental viewer of her personal life. It created the sense of seeing a woman who is thinking of her life or her loved ones, as her expression is at the same time content yet wistful.
When I saw the painting, it filled me with a lot of melancholic emotion. At first, it seemed to be that of a woman relaxing in the afternoon. Sarah’s expression and the stillness of the depicted situation, however, create a sort of loneliness, which is supported by the information of her son as a soldier (see fig. 2). I felt a sense of sorrow from the painting, as her only company in the portrait is a dog, who seems to blend in with her dress, almost like a part of her. She is not depicted as excessively wealthy or young or as a stunning ideal of a woman. Instead, to me, she seems to be a mother of a happy yet dispersed house, whom her children visit regularly but not enough. Nonetheless, her small smile implies happiness, even if from remembered memories.
Sarah’s portrait is the depiction of Sully’s wife in the most natural and appealing state. As the style is a portrait, included belonging are supposed to illustrate those things necessary to its subject. Flowers and Ponto accompany her character in the outdoor setting. Thus, nature and animals are presented as essential to her, and her actions of feeding the dog outline her compassion. However, none of the depicted objects take away attention from her face and hands, as Sarah remains the leading actor of the setting.
Additionally, a lack of excessive decor indicates that her wealth is not material. Instead, flowers and Ponto are amplifying factors of her personality. The calmness that surrounds her is passed on to them, making her seem a compelling character who decides the room’s atmosphere. This motherly aspect of her personality with its soft strength appeals to me most, knowing many women like her in real life.
The used paint helps to achieve a daydream-like setting, washing out the background and creating smooth, calm textures. In my opinion, watercolor would wrongly create a more playful, light-minded environment, while a sketch would not be as awe-inspired. Oil paints allow playing into Sarah’s aged maturity and beauty at the same time. They help create a sense of serious thoughts being on her mind. Sully instills this idea by using somber tones, which at the same time remain warm and welcoming. Thus, the used materials allow transferring the same feeling of respect and admiration from the painter to the viewer.
In creating an image of his wife in thought, Sully acts as the experiencer of the scene. While already an intimate portrait, this is amplified further by his knowledge of his wife’s mannerisms and figure. This understanding allows him to create a natural, unexaggerated depiction of her day-to-day sitting position. Furthermore, familiarity may be traced in the way Sully depicts her emotion, the organic positioning of her hands, and the colors of, what seems to be, a setting sun on her face.
Together, this allows the audience to become an unexpected visitor in the family’s outdoor courtyard, surprising the homeowners and becoming another experiencer of their tranquility. Thus, the personal connection to the painting is strengthened through its possibility in both the 19th and 21st centuries. Sarah Sully, as a person, a mother, a worrier, and someone reminiscent of better days, may exist today, which makes her depiction even more homely. Viewing her at rest allows becoming part of the affected by her stillness world.
While the idea of depicting your loved ones seems natural for an artist, the chosen portrait almost initiates the viewer into becoming part of the Sully household. This intimacy is made possible by the composition of a figure at thoughtful rest, where the viewer is an unseen intruder on a moment of inactivity. Furthermore, a personal connection is established due to the portrait’s warmth that is evident in both the colors used and the happily pensive emotion depicted.
The idea of “the ‘pregnant moment’” that is pivotal to Sully’s work is evident in the curves and gestures of the painting, where Sarah is seen feeding Ponto (Clubbe 58). The familiarity of the scene is supposed to allow any audience to establish a connection with the painting by creating a link with Sarah’s motherly character. Clues, such as the juxtaposition of the scene and the historical context of her son leaving serving in the army, support the idea of Sarah as slightly nostalgic.
Clubbe, John. Byron, Sully, and the Power of Portraiture. Routledge, 2016.