Little-known Mary Sully artworks on view at The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents the exhibition Mary Sully: Native Modern, opening July 18, 2024. Born Susan Mabel Deloria on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, Mary Sully (1896–1963) was a little-known, reclusive Yankton Dakota artist who, between the 1920s and 1940s, produced highly distinctive work informed by her Native American and settler ancestry.

The exhibition is part of The American Wing at 100, a series of gallery reinstallations and exhibitions marking the wing’s 2024 centennial.

“This compelling exhibition celebrates how Mary Sully’s cultural sensibilities influenced her unconventional body of work,” Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director and Chief Executive Officer, said. “Sully translated her life and experiences into a unique graphic language, culminating in an intensely creative perspective from which to consider Indigenous cultures and imagery.”

This first solo exhibition of Sully’s groundbreaking production highlights recent Met acquisitions and loans from the Mary Sully Foundation, works that call into question traditional notions of Native American and modern art.

Working without patronage, in near obscurity, and largely self-taught, Sully produced approximately 200 intricately designed and vividly colored drawings in colored pencil, graphite, and ink on paper that captured meaningful aspects of her Dakota community mixed with visual elements observed from other Native nations and the aesthetics of urban life. Euro-American celebrities from popular culture, politics, and religion inspired some of her most striking works, which she called “personality prints”—abstract portraits arranged as vertical triptychs.

Featuring 25 rarely seen Sully compositions—primarily her “personality prints”—as well as archival family material and other Native American items from The Met collection, the exhibition offers a fresh and nuanced lens through which to consider American art and life in the early 20th century. 

“Born of particular Native and Euro-American cultural entanglements, Sully’s work is highly relevant and resonant for the American Wing, The Met’s historic department of a broadly defined American art by diverse makers, with a deepening concentration of work by women and artists of color,” Sylvia Yount, Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator in Charge of the American Wing, said,

About Mary Sully

As a great-granddaughter of the successful 19th-century portraitist Thomas Sully (1783–1872), Susan Deloria expressly adopted the name of her mother, Mary Sully (1858–1916), daughter of Alfred Sully (1820–1879) and the Dakota woman Susan Pehandutawin (dates unknown), an artist in her own right.

Deloria grew up in a distinguished family of Dakota leaders. Her sister Ella Cara Deloria (1889–1971), with whom she primarily lived, was a linguistic ethnographer trained by the esteemed Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas. Her nephew, Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933–2005), was an author, theologian, historian, and activist for Native American rights. And her great-nephew, historian Philip J. Deloria, is the author of Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract (University of Washington Press, 2019), the only scholarly investigation of her art and life.

Related Presentation in Art of Native America Installation

In late June 2024, the American Wing at The Met unveiled a new rotation of works by Native American artists focusing on intergenerational knowledge and their critical role as knowledge keepers. These include recent acquisitions by contemporary basket makers Jeremy Frey (Passamaquoddy) and Theresa Secord (Penobscot), in addition to painter Rabbett Strickland (Red Cliff Ojibwe).

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