George Caleb Bingham, John S Campbell, 1860 (322)

Stories Behind the Portraits: Dorothy Sulger Kelly

George Caleb Bingham, The Reverend Tyre Crawford Harris, 1852 (265a)
John Neagle, Dorothy Sulger (Mrs. Thomas Kelly), ca. 1826
Oil on Canvas, 36 x 28 inches
Private Collection
Used with Permission

Dorothy Sulger Kelly is a re-discovered portrait by John Neagle (1796-1865). Neagle painted her portrait around the same time that he portrayed John Haviland. Haviland was the architect for the original Franklin Academy, which was built across the street from the Kelly’s Philadelphia home. Neagle painted Dorothy with a vibrancy that compels her owner, a direct descendant, to sit with her with an after-dinner coffee night after night. He never tires of looking at her – and neither do I. Timeless art is great art. To entice the viewers’ eyes to her face, the artist surrounded her head with a halo of clouds in colors complimentary to her flesh tones. A column in the background and its pedestal created another frame. The upward curve of her hand and of her embroidered shawl again draw the eye to her face. Even through layers of yellowed varnish, John Neagle’s portrait of Dorothy Kelly shines with its own inner glow.

Dorothy was the daughter of Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants. She was born in Philadelphia in 1774 and lived there until her death in 1866. Independence Hall sat only a few short blocks from her parents’ home. Her life story is a personalized American history. She lived through the British occupation of Philadelphia; her uncle was a hero of the American Revolution. She watched the funeral processions for Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.

George Caleb Bingham, Hugh Campbell Ward, 1870 (354)
John Neagle, John Haviland, 1828
Oil on Canvas, 33 x 26 inches
The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Fund, 1938
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City 38.82
Public Domain

At 17, Dorothy married and bore two daughters before the early death of her alcoholic husband. Her second husband, Thomas Kelly (1761-1847) was a widower with a young daughter. Born in Ireland, Thomas moved to America for religious freedom. In Philadelphia, he became a mainstay of the Methodist Church. He was also an entrepreneur who transformed his cobbler shop into a successful shoe and trunk business.

Together, Dorothy and Thomas had five more children. The lives of their descendants demonstrate that the kind intelligence that Neagle placed on Dorothy’s face carried down through the generations. Her descendants included Dr. Howard Atwood Kelly (1858-1943), a surgeon whose nearly countless accomplishments pushed medicine into the 20th century. In 1889, Kelly was one of the four founders of Johns Hopkins. In John Singer Sargent’s group portrait, the Four Doctors. Kelly pensively rested his head on his fingers. What I personally like best about Howard A. Kelly is that in 1927 he saved a portion of Florida wilderness from development by purchasing what is now Kelly Park. He gifted the land to the city of Apopka, about half an hour north of Disney World.

Another of Dorothy’s descendants, Stanley Addicks, was a popular music teacher at the University of Pennsylvania who married a talented contralto, Weda Cook. Thomas Eakins preserved their likenesses in 1896, not long after their wedding. An earlier solo painting of Weda, entitled The Concert Singer, is arguably one of Eakins’ best.

Portraits never fail to open my eyes to ever more detailed stories and pictures of history. But the portrait of Dorothy Sulger Kelly was an extraordinary treat. (These words summarize a 100-page family history)

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits.