Thomas Sully: Painted Performance

Thomas Sully: Painted Performance October 11, 2013January 5, 2014 Milwaukee Art Museum

Work in Focus: Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire

Thomas Sully: Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire

One of Thomas Sully’s most important subject pictures—or “fancy” pictures as they are often called—is his monumental Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire (1843). The story behind it offers a fascinating look into the world of a nineteenth-century working artist.

From the late 1830s into the 1840s, several economic crises threatened the United States. This affected the portraiture market, since potential customers chose to spend less money on luxury items. This hit Sully right where he lived.

In response, Sully accelerated his production of subject pictures, which he intended to exhibit publicly and offer for sale on speculation. One of these was Cinderella, which he painted in less than three months. His daughter Rosalie (herself a talented artist) was the model for the beleaguered heroine.

Sully’s choice of Cinderella was a shrewd one. Since its first publication in America in 1812, the story had appeared in multiple editions. It had also been the subject of a popular opera that had toured the U.S. the previous year, including Sully’s hometown of Philadelphia.

Sully depicted his heroine seated among the ashes of the kitchen, taking a break from her drudgery to play with a lively cat. In the background, her wicked stepsisters vainly primp while getting ready for the royal ball. The scene is set for the Fairy Godmother to appear and transform Cinderella into the ravishing beauty who attends the ball and captivates Prince Charming, leading to her very own happily ever after. The delicate pink and gray tones of the painting—and Rosalie Sully’s modest expression—emphasize Cinderella’s youth, innocence, and beauty.

Sully exhibited this painting in Philadelphia and Baltimore, where it was eventually purchased by a rich industrialist collector, whose family owned it until well into the twentieth century.