Important Rush portrait finds new home at Dickinson
by Matt Getty
October 1, 2009
Lockwood Rush poses in his home with Thomas Sully’s portrait of Benjamin Rush, which will be on display in The Trout Gallery starting Oct. 9 in an exhibition titled A Revolutionary Image: Thomas Sully’s Portrait of Benjamin Rush. Emma Bennett ’10 will provide curatorial assistance on the project. Photo by Ken Yanoviak.
Not long before his death in 1813, Benjamin Rush sat for a portrait by Thomas Sully, who was just beginning to distinguish himself as one of America’s premier portrait painters. Using techniques he’d perfected from his recent studies in England, Sully attacked the canvas with bold, confident strokes, capturing Dickinson’s founder at his desk, his glasses perched on his forehead, his chin resting against his hand and his gaze cast thoughtfully into the distance. The resulting painting is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of early American portraiture.
“This is Sully at the height of his talent,” says Phillip Earenfight, director of The Trout Gallery. “He developed a loose, bravura brush stroke, a really flashy use of paint, and you can see it especially in the folds and breaks in the coat sleeve. It’s an impressive piece. By this time, Sully was the finest American portraitist alive.”
Once completed, the portrait, which was one of only a few painted of Rush during his lifetime, remained in the Rush family for five generations and nearly 200 years. This fall, however, thanks to the generosity of Benjamin Rush’s great-great-great-grandson, Lockwood Rush, as well as the Ruth Trout Endowment, the Helen E. Trout Memorial Fund and the Friends of The Trout Gallery, the portrait is now part of The Trout Gallery’s collections.
“This is a once-in-an-institution’s-lifetime opportunity,” says Earenfight. “It is a major painting by a major Colonial portraitist. That we are able to acquire it is nothing short of a miracle.”
That miracle began five years ago, when Lockwood Rush visited campus to see the new statue the college had just erected of his ancestor. “I knew in the back of my mind that Benjamin Rush had founded Dickinson,” recalls Rush, a semiretired psychotherapist, author and marriage counselor living near Philadelphia. “But that was about it.”
That is, of course, until the late Walter E. Beach ’56 introduced Lockwood Rush to William G. Durden ’71, who’d been proclaiming Benjamin Rush to be a key component of Dickinson’s identity since becoming college president in 1999.
“What was so fascinating was how much reverence they held Benjamin Rush in,” recalls Rush, who toured the campus with Durden, taking in everything from the new statue to the Quarry’s Benjamin Rush blend of coffee. “It blew my mind. Most people think he was a great man, way ahead of his time in a lot of things, but up there it was almost like a living tradition.”
Starting with that visit, Rush developed an affinity for Dickinson that led him to donate his ancestor’s personal Bible to the college last year. When it came time to think of a permanent home for the painting, which had been on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum for more than 20 years, Rush and his wife Jackie decided Dickinson would be the best choice.
“The more we talked about it, the more the idea of Benjamin Rush being held in such esteem and being a living presence at Dickinson, so to speak, just really got us excited,” Rush says. “The more we thought about it, we thought this would be a much better home.”
The Rush portrait will be featured in an exhibition at The Trout Gallery titled A Revolutionary Image: Thomas Sully’s Portrait of Benjamin Rush, which opens on Oct. 9, during Homecoming & Family Weekend, and will be displayed until Feb. 20. The exhibition will include Rush’s Bible, several of his letters and some of his scientific equipment. As a permanent part of The Trout Gallery’s collection, the portrait will be showcased during future events celebrating Dickinson’s history, according to Earenfight.
“Though the college was born out of the Revolution, we have very few Revolutionary portraits,” he adds, noting that Rush was modest about his connection to the college during his lifetime and that most of the country’s Revolutionary-era portraits are owned by museums. “To get this portrait, and to have it come directly from the family, it is truly an unbelievable stroke of good fortune.”