Lady Hamilton as the Comic Muse

Between the summers of 1782 and 1791, Emma Hart, the future Lady Hamilton, was George Romney’s favourite model and his muse. He was aged 47 and she 16 when they met, introduced by Romney’s friend and her protector, Charles Greville (Sir William Hamilton’s nephew). Over the next nine years Romney painted dozens of historical and fancy pictures of Emma, based on vibrant sketches from the life, in which she personified allegorical, mythological and literary heroines. Through replicas, copies and engravings, many of these works became his best-known pictures even in his lifetime; a century after his death, when leading collectors in Britain, Europe and the U.S.A. fought for them, they secured his place as a darling of the art market.

Among these icons the Comic Muse is an enigmatic interloper. Its traditional title is a Victorian invention, not Romney’s own. In contrast to many of the Emmas, there is no documentary evidence to date it closely and its early history is completely mysterious. There are no known copies of it, and there is no engraving. It is also unusual in being on an oval canvas - a format Romney occasionally used for society portraits of young women, but generally avoided in his depictions of Emma.

Yet the oval format may be an important clue to the work’s intention. The picture’s design is closely related to the study of Lady Hamilton known as the Sibyl, in the National Portrait Gallery, with Emma turned to the left and looking back, as if interrupted, over her left shoulder. Commentators have often noted the poor management of the composition of this work, as well as the obvious signs that it has been framed as an oval in the past, and one plausible view of the Comic Muse is that it represents Romney ironing out the earlier picture’s faults and giving it its intended and definitive form. Thus in place of the serious, slightly awkward Emma of the earlier work we have the more familiar coy expression of the temptress, whilst in the changes to the costume, at once both more classical and more exotic, Romney seems to be acknowledging the growing celebrity of his muse’s ‘Attitudes’.

Kindly written by Alex Kidson


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