We know she was a trailblazer for reigning Queen Elizabeth, and thanks to the recent PBS series Victoria, we know she enjoyed a “full-on passionate marriage” with her husband, Prince Albert. But Queen Victoria had another special relationship in her life: the artistic one she shared with 19th-century painter Thomas Sully.
The English-born, American-reared artist had his first sitting with the young monarch on March 22, 1838, when she was just shy of 20. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Victoria was “tickled” by the idea of being painted by an American.
“I should be gratified,” wrote Sully, “if I were able to give an idea of the sweet tone of voice, and gentle manner of Queen Victoria! It was impressive of dignity and mildness, and at the same time I felt quite at my ease, as tho in company with merely a well bred lady.”
Today a later study based on the full-length portrait is on display at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Fla. — and the museum, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary year and also features the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, has a unique way of viewing the stunning painting.
Called “The Art Machine,” the exhibit was designed in 1988 by former museum director Hugh McKean as “another way of looking at art,” he explained, “an alternative to hurrying past rows and rows and rows and rows of pictures hanging in museums.”
So how are visitors intended to look at the painting, which is considered Sully’s greatest work?
In essence: slowly and thoughtfully. The instruction manual McKean provided suggests first sitting in a comfortable chair (preferably while wearing loose clothing), closing your eyes and taking 12 deep breaths. Next, viewers should close their eyes and then rest two minutes.
Victoria, who died at age 81 in 1901, “lived so long she walks out of history a dumpy dowager dressed in black,” wrote McKean. “Sully’s Victoria is a little beauty, fond of people and parties, and an ideal Queen for storybook islands complete with shining rivers, great estates, drafty castles and loyal subjects.”
Just 18 when she inherited the throne in 1837, “overnight she was the most famous and most powerful woman in the world,” Victoria historian Daisy Goodwin told PEOPLE. “That is a huge deal. After a succession of old men, they had a teenage woman running the country.”