This portrait of Patrick Henry was painted by Virginia artist George Bagby Matthews. Matthews copied a painting created by portraitist Thomas Sully in 1815. The State of Virginia commissioned the portrait by Bagby about 1883. It now hangs in the Executive Mansion.
Henry was a well-known lawyer and a fervent patriot. One of the greatest orators in American history, he was born in Hanover County on May 29, 1736. Henry represented Virginia at the First and Second Continental Congresses, attended four of Virginia's five Revolutionary Conventions, and was the Commonwealth of Virginia's first governor. A member of the House of Burgesses before the American Revolution, he served in the House of Delegates during and after the war. In 1787 and 1788 Henry opposed ratification of the Constitution of the United States, fearing that it would create too strong a national government that would, without a bill of rights, endanger the liberties for which the American Revolution had been fought. Henry practiced law until 1794 and died at his residence at Red Hill, in Charlotte County, on June 6, 1799.
Thomas Sully, who copied his painting of Henry from a miniature painted from life, was a famous American portraitist. He was born in England in 1783 and moved to the United States with his family in 1792. Sully was apprenticed to his brother-in-law, Jean Belzons, who was a miniature painter. In 1799 Sully moved to Virginia where his brother Lawrence Sully, also a miniaturist, lived. In 1807 Sully moved to Philadelphia and, after studying with Benjamin West in London, established himself as a talented and popular portrait painter. He died in Philadelphia in 1872. Sully's 1815 painting of Henry is now owned by Colonial Williamsburg.
The artist chosen by Virginia to copy Sully's painting was George Bagby Matthews. Matthews was born in 1857 in Tappahannock. He studied in Europe before opening a studio in Richmond. Early in the twentieth century he moved to Washington, D.C., and died in 1944 in King George County. Matthews was a portrait, landscape, and southern historical painter. His paintings are held by private collectors as well as by the U.S. Capitol and various Virginia institutions.
1. How is Patrick Henry dressed? Do his clothes tell you anything about him? Do people still dress the way he is dressed?
2. How would you describe this painting to someone who could not see it?
3. Do you think the choice of colors the painter used is important? Why or why not?
1. Patrick Henry's glasses are an iconic symbol of him now, in part because of this portrait of the patriot, but also from William Wirt's biography of Henry in which he describes Henry's mannerisms concerning his glasses. "If he was ever seen to give his spectacles a cant to the top of his wig, it was a declaration of war, and his adversaries must stand clear." (See Jack Clifton's Adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights; can you find Henry?) Research artwork of other historical figures; what symbols and triggers do artists employ to help the viewer recognize different figures?
In 1815 Thomas Sully painted his first full-size portrait of Patrick Henry for William Wirt, Henry's first biographer. Wirt used the painting, which had been pronounced a good likeness by several of Henry's contemporaries, including his widow and Chief Justice John Marshall, as the frontispiece on the first edition of Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry. Wirt gave Sully's painting to Henry's son John Henry.
In 1873 William Wirt Henry, John Henry's son, lent the 1815 Sully portrait to the State of Virginia to hang in the State Library. Sometime early in the 1880s, either William Wirt Henry or his daughter requested the return of the painting, at which time, the State of Virginia hired George Bagby Matthews to copy it. In 1884 the Sully painting was returned to its owners and Matthews's copy was hung in its place.
Rasmussen, William. "Patrick Henry, Sentinel for the People." American Art Review 8, no. 2 (1996).
Hall, Virginius Cornick, Jr. "Notes of Patrick Henry Portraiture." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 71, no. 2 (1963): 168–184.