Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mrs James Fletcher (née Fell), c.1765 

George Romney (1734-1802)

Portrait of Mrs James Fletcher (née Fell), c.1765, George Romney
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 inches 124 x 104 cm
Mrs Moss; Christie's London, 2nd June 1883, lot 147 Mary Isabella Hole; Christie''s London, 13th May 1899, lot 78 (280 gns to Wigzell) George Donaldson, London, by 1904 Mrs A Hamilton Rice; Parke Bernet Galleries, New York, 24th January 1951, lot 78 Anon sale, Parke Bernet Galleries, New York, 7th April 1966, bt. Agnew''s Thomas Agnew & Son Ltd, London, and Newhouse Galleries, New York Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Derby Fund, bt. 18th August 1966 (inv. no.66.31)
H Ward and W Roberts, Romney: a Biographical and Critical Essay with a Catalogue RaisonnÚ of his Works, London 1904, vol. II, p.55
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This portrait dates from circa 1765, around three years after Romney had left Kendal and set up as a painter in London, although it may have been painted in the north on one of his return visits of the mid-1760s. Its linear grace, glossy drapery and cool palette are typical of the neoclassical portraits which Romney produced before his journey to Italy in 1773, reflecting his private study in the Duke of Richmond's sculpture gallery at Richmond House, Whitehall.

Mrs James Fletcher was the daughter of Mrs Isabella Fell, who was also painted by Romney (see Ward and Roberts, op. cit., vol. II, p.53). Mrs Fell was probably the wife of Romney's master at the grammar school at Dendron, which he attended until the age of ten. Romney also painted James Fletcher, who is shown with a seascape and a ship in the background, suggesting that he was a merchant (Ward and Roberts, vol. II, p.55). The paintings of the Fletchers were probably marriage portraits, as Mrs Fletcher is shown holding fruit, a symbol of - and hope for - fertility.

The combination of lilac and green in Mrs Fletcher's dress was a favourite of Romney at this period: a similar combination of hues appears in his 1766 double portrait of his brothers Peter and James (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven; see Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, etc., George Romney 1734-1802, exh. cat. by Alex Kidson, pp.60-1, no.15, illus. in colour). The strong emerald green appears in a number of early portraits of northern sitters and it has been suggested that this is a reference to Kendal Green, a locally-manufactured woollen cloth (Kidson, ibid., p.48-9).

George Romney ranks with Reynolds and Gainsborough as one of the finest society portrait painters of the eighteenth century. The son of a cabinetmaker, he was apprenticed first to his father and then in 1755 to the itinerant portrait painter Christopher Steele. In 1757 Romney set up a portrait practice in Kendal.

In 1762 Romney left his wife and family in Kendal and moved to London to seek his fortune. He specialised in portraits and historical pictures such as The Death of General Wolfe, shown at the Society of Arts in 1763. The following year he visited Paris, but was dismissive of modern French art. Romney's society portraits of 1764-73 show a grandeur of treatment and a graceful, elongated neoclassical style.

Romney went to Rome in 1773 with the miniature painter Ozias Humphry, in order to study Italian art, particularly the work of Michelangelo and Raphael. Although he had a reputation for reclusiveness, Romney's broadly-brushed pen and ink drawings of dramatic figural scenes have affinity with the work of Abildgaard, Sergel, Joseph Wright of Derby and other members of the Fuseli circle in Rome.

Romney returned to England via Florence, Bologna, Ferrara, Venice and Parma in 1775. He took a lease on Francis Cotes''s grand house at 24 Cavendish Square and quickly re-established his portrait practice. His sitter books record some 1500 sitters between 1776 and 1795; he excelled at painting beautiful and glamorous society women, their elegant poses informed by the study of Italian art. Romney craved success as a history painter and produced a painting of The Tempest for Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery in 1790, as well as his many portraits of Emma Hamilton (then Emma Hart) in allegorical or classical guise. These portraits of Emma are a perfect fusion of Emma''s theatrical instinct with Romney''s Romantic bravura brushwork; his love for her was not requited.

Visiting Revolutionary France in 1790, Romney admired a flourishing school of history painting in the work of David and other neoclassical artists. His instinct to express himself as a history painter found vent in numerous dashing, emotionally charged drawings, including many on subjects from Milton, but in few large history paintings. In 1798 Romney moved to a new large house and studio in Hampstead, but soon after suffered a series of strokes. The following year he moved back to his long-neglected wife in Kendal and died there in 1802. He was a melancholy, sensitive man, who triumphed in his chosen sphere of portraiture but always longed for recognition in the so-called ''higher'' category of history painting. His friend Flaxman wrote of him: ''his heart and soul were engaged in the pursuit of historical and ideal painting'', but his stunning portraits are among the most impressive of his century.

The work of George Romney is represented in the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate Gallery, London; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, California.
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