Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Madame Larcena, in a Nun’s Habit painted 1786

George Romney (1734-1802)

Portrait of Madame Larcena, in a Nun’s Habit, George Romney
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches, 76 x 63.5 cm
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This unusual and intriguing picture shows, at first glance, a devout nun, appropriately attired, with a crucifix to her right, an icon to her left, and a rosary in her hand. Indeed, when it was sold in 1827 it was called simply a ‘portrait of a female as a vestal’. But the sitter here is in fact a courtesan, the mistress of Sir John Leicester, and, to our sensitive eyes, quite inappropriately dressed in a religious habit.

It is, however, a common misconception, born out late-Victoria prudery, that England was historically a more conservative society, and that sexual and religious liberalism is exclusively the preserve of the twentieth century. Madame Larcena, like many eighteenth century mistresses, and even prostitutes, is deliberately dressed as a nun. In fact, the description of a woman as a ‘nun’ in England in the late eighteenth century – a country still then in fear of a Catholic resurgence – implied that she was a prostitute. A slightly earlier work (1769) by Henry Morland called ‘The Fair Nun Unmask’d’ was a popular satire on the same theme as seen in the present picture.

Here, however, Romney’s portrait indicates that the practice of courtesans dressing in religious clothing was accepted at the very highest levels of society. Madame Larcena sat to Romney in October 1786, by which time she was the mistress of the young Sir John Leicester, later Lord De Tabley, one of the greatest art patrons in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Leicester had commissioned the portrait from Romney himself – at a cost of twenty guineas. We can wonder too whether Romney – probably the most highly sexed portraitist of his age – played along with the idea, for he has included so many (distracting) religious allusions in the picture that it almost ceases to be a portrait.

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