Thomas Sully was one of the greatest painters in American art, second only to Gilbert Stuart in his influence on portraiture. Born into a family of actors in Lancashire, England, Sully was raised in South Carolina, where he initially took lessons from his older brother Lawrence. His hunger for improvement took him first to the elderly Stuart in Boston, then to London, where he studied with Sir Thomas Lawrence, third president of the Royal Academy, whose painterly flash and exquisite coloration marked Sully's own mature work. In Philadelphia, Sully became the city's most sought-after portraitist, enjoying a long and successful career as an artist and teacher.
A member of one of Philadelphia's most prominent families, Major Thomas Biddle distinguished himself as an artilleryman during the war of 1812. This portrait was commissioned from Sully by Biddle's father, when the twenty-eight-year-old was commander of Fort Mifflin. All of Sully's bravura handling is on view, from the dramatic sky to the glistening epaulets to Biddle's assured expression - which may owe something to artistic licence, as the sitter was notably nearsighted. Biddle later explored the West and became an Army paymaster and banker in Saint Louis, where he was killed in a duel in 1831 arising from a political dispute.