This 1818 painting of Eliza Ridgely hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
When Thomas Sully painted fifteen-year-old Eliza Ridgely in the spring of 1818, he was widely regarded as America's leading artist. Particularly noted for his graceful images of women, he was a natural choice to paint this Baltimore merchant's daughter.
In painting Eliza, Sully emphasized her privileged social status as well as her delicate, youthful charm. Her family affluence is indicated by her up-to-the-minute hair style and dress, inspired by contemporary European designs in the neo-Grecian manner. The satin of her Empire gown is carefully described through fluid brushwork and brilliant highlights. Eliza, as a young lady of cultural accomplishment, posed with her European pedal harp. She idly plucks the harp strings and gazes dreamily into space, as if musing on the lyrical chord she strikes. A fiery sunset heightens the romantic reverie.
Although she may very well have possessed luminous eyes, arched brows, and a porcelain complexion, Miss Ridgely's figure has been greatly idealized. Sully, for the sake of fashionable elegance, exaggerated her legs to half again as long as any conceivably normal proportion. Sully once wrote, “From long experience I know that resemblance in a portrait is essential; but no fault will be found with the artist, at least by the sitter, if he improve the appearance.” -- NGA
For more on Eliza Ridgely and her home Hampton see The Lady with the Harp at Landmarks .