Thomas Sully – John Biddle Chapman – 1829


John Biddle Chapman – This portrait was painted in 1829 for his father, prominent Philadelphia physician, Dr. Chapman.   Born in 1811, John was the eldest son of Rebecca and Nathaniel Chapman.    He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1829.   It is presumed that his father had this painting made as a remembrance of this event.    In one entry it is noted that he too was a medical doctor.   Being a handsome man, he had an active social life, finally marrying Mary Gabriela Randolph in 1833.   She unfortunately died in 1837.   The 1922 catalog noted that this painting was still owned by the great-grandson of Chapman at the time of the retrospective of Thomas Sully.   This painting was purchased by my client in 2012 as a portrait of an unknown man in the style of Thomas Sully.    It was not thought to be an original portrait.    The whereabouts of the 1922 Sully portrait of Chapman was unknown at the time of this sale.   After the painting was cleaned, the original Sully signature was uncovered.    Conservation analysis determined that this was indeed the portrait of John Biddle Chapman by Thomas Sully, dated 1829.   He died in Philadelphia in 1845 at the age of 33.

Thomas Sully– Sully was born in Horncastle, England in 1783.   His parents Matthew and Sarah Sully were actors.    He moved with his parents to Richmond, Virginia in 1792.   He became a professional artist in 1801 at the age of 18.    He studied for a short period of time with Gilbert Stuart in Boston, finally settling in Philadelphia for the remainder of his life.   He married Sarah Annis (his brother’s wife after he died).   He helped raise his brother’s children and had nine more of his own.   In 1809 he traveled to London and studied with Benjamin West for nine months.   Sully was a successful, talented and prominent portrait painter.   His paintings hang in many museums throughout the country.    He painted such notable people as John Quincy Adams, Marquis de Lafayette, Queen Victoria, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.    Sully’s index of artwork indicates that he painted 2631 paintings beginning in 1801.  He died in Philadelphia in 1872.


Artifact's Condition Prior to Treatment

This portrait was first brought to us for examination.   The private owner had just purchased it at auction in Philadelphia as a painting that was done as a copy or in the style of Thomas Sully.    He had a 1922 exhibition catalog from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.  The catalog was a retrospective of Thomas Sully’s work, which showed a similar portrait of John Biddle Chapman.  He was hopeful that this might be the original painting.   The 18”h x 14”w painting was in good stable condition, but it had been partially overpainted, was glue lined, and the paint appeared to be really fuzzy with no crisp sharp paint strokes.    Examination under ultraviolet light showed several large areas of overpaint; in the background, near the bottom edge, above the head, and just below the shoulder on the left side.    These areas of overpaint were all noticeable in the small catalog photograph with the exception of the one directly under Chapman’s proper left shoulder.   The overpaint most likely covered tears in the canvas, which was why the painting would have been lined.   Most disturbing, was that the “TS” signature in the lower viewer’s left corner was sitting on top of the varnish layer, which had been added during the previous restoration.   It was therefore, not painted while the original paint was still wet and was not placed there by the artist.    The owner mentioned that the small printed photograph in the catalog had a signature and date just below the vignetted left viewer’s shoulder of Chapman.    He requested that a small cleaning test be made in this area to remove discolored varnish and overpaint to see if this signature was present.     This area was carefully cleaned under magnification and a faint “TS 1829” was found.    This 2” x 3” area of overpaint had been added during the past restoration to cover a thin 3” long horizontal cut or tear.     Professional conservators would only have inpainted just the damaged area, matching the original artist’s paint.     Following the discovery that this was indeed the original Chapman painting by Sully, the owner authorized full conservation of the artifact.  Using ultraviolet light the discolored murky varnish coating fluoresced the characteristic yellow/green color of a natural resin varnish.    Cleaning later revealed that the varnish contained a lot of overpaint and had been added as a glaze in the varnish to cover-up or disguise the fact that the painting’s surface was so badly abraded.   This was why the varnish had appeared to be so cloudy.  When the painting had been completely cleaned, it looked like the original, but in some ways it didn’t.    The crispness of all brushstrokes throughout the painting were gone.   They were fuzzy.    The catalog photograph was again compared to the painting to make certain that all of the brushstrokes remaining on the painting exactly matched those in the catalog.    It was difficult to definitively be certain because the black and white catalog photograph was not crisp.      Just on the off chance that the Pennsylvania Academy might still retain original photographs from their 1922 catalog, we called to speak with the archivist.    Her initial response was, “no way, but let me look in the sub-basement just in case.”   Within 10 minutes we received a high resolution image by email of the original 8” x 10” glass-plate negative from the catalog (see attached photograph).    Once in a while you really get lucky.    We printed this image and it was crystal clear.    We compared this to the painting, and even though the brush strokes were damaged, they were absolutely identical to those in the photograph.    It was our thought that the damage to the paint layer was a combination of poor cleaning with the possibility that this piece might have survived a fire.    It was hard to really explain why it looked like it did without a definitive explanation or without additional analytical testing of the paint and ground layers.

Treatment of the Artifact

Treatment of this painting was documented with written reports and digital photography (before, during and after treatment).   Once the painting was unframed the varnish and overpaint were carefully removed with organic solvents.     As noted before, Sully’s signature and date were faint, but intact.   The original paint layer was absolutely in plane and stable.    The paint surface throughout the entire piece was noted as having a very granular appearance.   Some artist’s like Turner were inclined to add materials like sand into their paint mixture to give it a glistening appearance.   This was our initial thought, but that’s not really the case.    The paint itself is granular and that’s why we are slightly suspicious that this piece has gone through a fire.   After we saturated the paint with a varnish coating, it was shown to the owner.    We had several discussions about the approach to inpainting.  Because of the extremely good photograph of the portrait in 1922 it was decided to reconstruct the blurry facial features, hair, cravat, and jacket collar using this image.    Minute losses were filled with gesso and inpainted along with abrasions and missing parts of brushstrokes using conservation grade paints.    It was astounding how the painting was transformed by connecting partially missing brushstrokes, reapplying thin missing glazes, and inpainting small pin sized losses.    When complete a final spray coating of acrylic varnish was applied.   For the time being, the owner is displaying the portrait in the modern frame that came with the painting.   A historic early 19th century frame or high quality reproduction period frame will be added to this superb painting in the future.   The fraudulent “TS” signature that was on top of the discolored restorer’s varnish in the lower left corner was photographically documented and then overpainted preserving it for the future.   The badly abraded original Thomas Sully signature and date were treated in the following manner:  the “TS” was not overpainted or strengthened and the paint surrounding the faded signature was lightened in color to better highlight the original monogram.   The date however, was reconstructed from an enlarged image of the 1922 catalog photograph.   It was extremely difficult to ascertain the exact placement of the numbers or their shape from the painting’s surface.   Only small parts of several numbers were even visible.    The conservation of this important signature was thoroughly documented with photography before, during and after conservation.

Photographic Documentation