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SAMA's New Exhibit: Thomas Sully's 19th Century Selfies, Andrew Jackson And More

The San Antonio Museum of Art opens a new exhibition on Saturday and I was lucky enough to get a preview. Workmen were still hanging and lighting the paintings as I sat down with the new Curator of American Art William Keyse Rudolph.

"Our new exhibit, Thomas Sully, Painted Performance, is a retrospective of one of the 19th century America’s greatest painters," Rudolph said. "We divided the show into four thematic areas based on the types of works Sulley made:  Theatrical portraits of actors and actresses in some of their most famous roles" he explained, "Then, portraits of 'regular folks' who wanted to look like celebrities, then a very interesting two sections on how Sully responded to the art market of the 19th century."

Sully was a hard-working, in-demand, creative and prolific artist who documented his more than 2,300 works exhaustively -- including, as it turns out, a distinctive view of a former president.

“Yes, every time you open your wallet I hope you will have a $20 bill, but it was the basis of the $20 bill," Rudolph said.

Sully's portrait of Andrew Jackson was the basis for the currency.

He said something which resonated to me, so I asked him to drill down a bit. "You called some of these almost like ‘selfies’ from the 19th century," I said.

“Yes, we’re used to today thinking about being about to manipulate images of ourselves, or our friends to try to emphasize certain aspects of our character or our persona," Rudolph said. "And what we don’t always realize is that in the 19th century they did that, too. These are very, very beautiful examples of the continuing human desire to showcase yourself to the world in attractive and very provocative ways."

A well-done exhibit helps visitors to understand the backstory behind the exhibitions with descriptors next the each painting, and as Rudolph explained, this one is no exception.

“We also have an audio tour which provides further information," he said. "So whether on the walls or in your ears we offer you different ways into the paintings.”

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii