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Sally Etting

Thomas Sully (American, b. England, 1783-1872)

Sally Etting, 1808

  • Oil on canvas
  • 30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Gift of William Wollman Foundation, F 4610

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Sally Etting

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Sally Etting

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Thomas Sully (1783–1872) was one of America’s leading portrait painters in his time. Sully painted numerous portraits of America’s tiny Jewish community during the Federal Period. Here, he depicts 32-year-old Sally Etting in a Roman-inspired hairstyle and wearing the type of high-waisted white neoclassical gown that was just coming into fashion in Philadelphia at the time. This, however, is not how she would have dressed on a daily basis.

Thomas Sully began this portrait on May 16, 1808, and completed it nine days later. The depiction of Miss Etting shows a freshness and a softness of light and line that are typical of Sully’s portraiture. It is a sensitive portrait of the young woman—sympathetic without idealizing her likeness.

During this period, portraits held a special significance in the homes of many American Jews. These likenesses served their traditional purpose in asserting the subject’s status and ensuring some measure of immortality. They also acted as daily reminders of family members distanced by geography. Most important, these portraits affirmed their sitters’ identities as Americans in the open, democratic society of which they were a part. For those Jews who could afford them, commissioned portraits reflected a sense of belonging.

Notice that there is nothing in this portrait that identifies Sally Etting as distinctively Jewish. There is no Hebrew writing, no ceremonial object like a Hanukkah lamp or Sabbath light. American Jews frequently had such objects on display in their homes but rarely were they included in the portraits they commissioned. By commissioning a portrait from a prestigious artist, executed in the style of the day and including no identifiably "Jewish" elements, Etting presented herself as she wanted to be seen—as an upper-class American woman.