Sully began his life in England, but his parents, both actors, emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1792 when Thomas was nine years old. His early connections with the theater led naturally to his many portraits and depictions of the stage and actors; one of his first paintings was of the English actor Thomas Cooper (Anderson 89).
In the 1830s and 40s Sully was commissioned by the Philadelphia Edward L. Carey, a wealthy bookseller and publisher, to do a number of paintings based on Shakespeare's characters. Carey, an avid collector and patron of the arts, became President of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1845. The list below, many of them the commissions of Carey, comes mainly from William Pressly's excellent entry on Sully in his catalogue of the paintings in the Folger Shakespeare Library (150-1).