The Philadelphia painter Thomas Sully is best known for his portraits, having painted approximately two thousand in his long career. However, in the late 1830s, with portrait commissions drying up, Sully began to produce works that appealed to popular tastes, including sentimental and literary subjects, which he referred to as his fancy pictures. Among the works derived from literary sources are Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire (1839), based on the popular fairy tale; Little Nell Asleep in the Curiosity Shop (1841), from Charles Dickens’ novel The Old Curiosity Shop; and this painting, depicting a scene from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot.
Written in 1824, The Pilot is loosely based on John Paul Jones’s daring naval exploits during the Revolutionary War. Sully depicts Cecelia Howard and her cousin Katherine Plowden at the moment they locate Cecelia’s fiancé Edward Griffith, an American lieutenant who has been jailed by the British. The original passage by Cooper reads:
The moment had now arrived when the character of Cecelia Howard appeared to undergo an entire change. Hitherto she had been led by her cousin, whose activity and enterprise seemed to qualify her so well for the office of guide; but now she advanced before Katherine, and, extending her lamp in such a manner as to throw the light across the face of the sleeper, she bent to examine his countenance, with keen and anxious eye.