Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn
milwaukeesfs

Milwaukee Art Museum, “Thomas Sully, Painted Performance.”

On Friday, November 15th, we went to the Milwaukee Art Museum to the exhibit, “Thomas Sully, Painted Performance.”

Sully was one of 19th Century America’s most prolific artists, painting over twenty-three hundred works during his career, including portraits of the Marquis de Lafayette, Queen Victoria, presidents, socialites, and actors. If you have seen a US twenty-dollar bill, you are familiar with one piece of Sully’s work, since the engraving is based on one of Sully’s portraits of Andrew Jackson, which is included in this show.

Sully was born into a theatrical family. Though he preferred to paint, his connections with the theatre brought him commissions from actors and theatre managers. This got him established as a portraitist and he painted many of America’s most famous actors of the first half of the 19th century. Living in Philadelphia, he became a popular painter for socially prominent families. Names such as Biddle and Siddons occur frequently in the catalog of his works. These connections allowed him to paint young Queen Victoria when he went to England to study.

Besides commissions, he was a constant worker, and painted many “fancy” (or imaginative) paintings on “spec” for gallery exhibition and hopeful sale. These works were popular with publishers, and were often purchased for use as illustrations in books or magazines. This work kept Sully and his family in funds when economic upheavals made the commission portrait business scarce. Examples in the show include paintings depicting “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” and studies for a series of illustrations for “Robinson Crusoe.”

The exhibition consists of over eighty paintings, beginning with his theatrical portraits, his society portraits, and his fancy paintings. We found his work to be very impressive. He was a remarkable portraitist, with a great eye for detail and color, and a very advanced style for his day. He was particularly effective at painting eyes, which lend a wonderful life to his portraits. This could, however, be a bit of a drawback with some of his “fancy” work. His sentimental paintings are prone to portray idealized and somewhat stylized chubby children. Seeing the very lifelike eyes looking out from the unreal faces is a bit of an “uncanny valley” moment.

This really was a fascinating exhibit. We don’t really see much depiction of the period between 1800 and the Civil War, and this was the period of Sully’s greatest activity. We were glad to be able to familiarize ourselves with the work of this great painter. The exhibition continues through January 5th.

Prior to going to the Museum, we treated ourselves to lunch at “Le Reve,” a French Bistro-style restaurant located on Harwood Avenue in “The Village” of Wauwatosa. Georgie ordered the salmon sandwich, which was very good. The delicious cut of salmon was dressed with sun-dried tomatoes, bacon, and a rosemary aioli on a flavorful soft bun. I ordered the Coquilles Saint Jacques crepes, which were filled with lovely pieces of scallop, braised leeks, cheese, and citrus brown butter. It came with a nice side salad dressed with what tasted to me like a Parmesan vinaigrette. I accompanied it with a glass of a very nice Reisling. The only part of the meal that was the slightest bit disappointing were the “pommes frites” which came with the sandwich. They were fine, but not exceptional, and no different than the French fries one could get elsewhere.

Since we were full from the meal, we got two of Le Reve’s desserts to take home. Fancy pastries are a specialty, and their display case a positive danger. We got a slice of Opera Torte (“Thin layers of coffee soaked almond bisquit, chocolate ganache, and coffee butter cream.”) and a Chocolate Caramel Tart (“Chocolate almond tart shell filled with homemade caramel sauce and Valhrona chocolate ganache.”) We’re not big fans of coffee, but the Opera Torte looked good, and when we ate them, both desserts proved delicious.

Service at Le Reve was cheerful and good. The restaurant was on the noisy side at lunchtime, but not oppressively so. We will be going back, since the dinner menu, in particular, promises further delights.

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