Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Study of a Muse, c.1792 (Emma, Lady Hamilton) 

George Romney (1734-1802)

Study of a Muse, c.1792 (Emma, Lady Hamilton), George Romney
Oil and Canvas
18th Century
17 ¾ x 15 1/8 in (45 x 38.5 cm)
With Newhouse Galleries New York; F. Howard Walsh, Texas; Walsh Family Art Trust.
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This intimate and freshly painted sketch is a rare study of one of Romney’s famous muses. The sitter has traditionally been identified as Emma Hamilton, Admiral Nelson’s mistress and Romney’s most celebrated subject. Despite its unequivocal evocation of Emma’s famous physiognomy, it is possible, however, that it relates to a pair of studies made by Romney of ‘Pamela’ (1776-1831), another celebrated beauty, who sat to the artist on several occasions in 1792. Despite it

Romney placed enormous importance on models such as Emma and Pamela. They allowed him to escape what he called the “cursed drudgery” [Ward &Roberts, ‘Romney’ Vol 1, p61] of his regular portrait practice, in which he often saw up to seven patrons a day. Romney was also an impulsive, and, if contemporary rumour is to be believed, voraciously avid admirer of all things female – “[he has] as many sultanas as an asiatic prince” observed his friend William Hayley [ODNB 2004].

Romney first met Emma Hamilton in 1782. She was sixteen, he forty-seven. His fascination with Emma produced one of the great artist-model relationships in British art, consisting of dozens of finished paintings and sketches. Emma was adept at handling her artistic admirer, as became a woman whose whole life (in fact, career) revolved around responding to the needs and sensitivities of men. Romney was a notoriously prickly character, a man of “aspen nerves, that every breath could ruffle”. But he soon became obediently besotted with Emma, through whom his talents were both becalmed and heightened to the maximum power.

The results can be seen throughout Romney’s pictures of the 1780s and early 1790s, years that formed the peak of his career. The concentrated study of the most sensual woman of the age raised Romney’s artistic energy to new levels, and inspired him to produce his best work. He painted her in a vast range of poses, as well as her noted ‘attitudes’ such as tragedy or comedy. Most were captured moments of passionate observation, such as can be seen in the present sketch. It is therefore through Romney that Emma has been transmitted to posterity as an unaging, timeless beauty. History sees Emma through Romney’s eyes, just as it hears her through Nelson’s letters. Nobody remembers her end, as a forgotten, indebted drunk, in a rented apartment in Calais.

In 1786 Emma left England for Naples, as the mistress of Sir William Hamilton. She returned briefly in 1791, and sat to Romney again for ‘The Ambassadress’ [Jack Blanton museum of Art, Texas]. Romney clearly needed another Emma figure on which to project his artistic and personal conceptions of beauty, art and attraction. ‘Mademoiselle Pamela’, as she was known before marriage, arrived, with apposite timing, in late 1791. Romney had already been much taken with her on his brief visit to Paris in 1790, and soon after their first meeting in London January 1792 he painted her portrait. Numerous sittings are recorded in January and February, for apparently four separate canvases. Later that year Pamela married the Irish revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald, one of a number of radicals in Romney’s circle, such as Thomas Paine, whom he also painted 1792.

On January 28th Romney wrote to Hayley “I am painting two pictures of Pamela, and I think they will both be beautiful. As they are two different views of her face, one of course will be better than the other, and I shall give Madame de Genlis her choice of them.” Only one such work has since been recorded, which was given to Hayley himself, and was evidently the less successful ‘side’. It shows, however, the type of studied expression that Romney encouraged in Emma, and which he evidently sought from his muses. Although the likeness is not immediately exact, the similarity in pose, handling and attitude between the Hayley sketch and the present picture suggests that the other ‘side’ may now have been located.
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