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LONDON — She stares wide-eyed from the canvas, lips slightly parted, auburn hair spilling over creamy shoulders. Sexy, expressive and famous for her ability to hold a pose for hours, Emma Hart — later Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson’s mistress — was something of a late 18th-century supermodel.
She was also the model and muse of George Romney, the prolific English portraitist who painted alongside Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Romney, who quickly sunk into obscurity after his death in 1802, is enjoying a revival here, where his works are on display at the National Portrait Gallery until Aug. 18.
“George Romney 1734-1802,” which travels to the Huntington Gallery in San Marino, Calif., on Sept. 15, traces the artist’s path from landscape artist to frustrated historical painter to London’s most fashionable society portraitist who ended his career a stubborn introvert terrified of criticism. It also mirrors an action-packed time in English history. Romney was painting on the eve of the Industrial Age and against the backdrop of the French and American revolutions. It was a time when the concept of monarchy was up for debate, the middle classes were climbing socially and wealthy English were flocking to continental Europe for the grand tour.
The exhibition, which features more than 100 paintings and works on paper, was put together by Alex Kidson, curator of British art at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and marks the bicentennial of Romney’s death. Dr. Lucy Peltz, 18th century curator at the National Portrait Gallery, hopes the attention will restore the sparkle to Romney’s reputation, which flagged almost immediately after he died.
“He lost his footing in the canon, so this is an effort to reposition him in the big three, along with Reynolds and Gainsborough,” says Peltz.
In the 19th century, many of Romney’s paintings were lost or destroyed, and he fell into obscurity, Peltz adds.
The artist’s later works — enriched by his visits to France and Italy — are the highlights of the show, including “The Leveson-Gower Children,” Romney’s signature work painted in 1777, which shows five of Lord Gower’s children dancing as if around a maypole; “The Leigh Family,” painted nine years earlier, and portraits of the tragic actress Sarah Siddons.
But when 16-year-old Emma, an unwed mother and at the time the mistress of Romney’s friend Charles Greville, burst onto the scene in 1782, Romney’s career changed forever. Inspired by Emma’s beauty, big personality and social ambitions, he began painting “creative portraits” alongside the routine portraits of his wealthy patrons.
Romney transformed Emma into Circe, Joan of Arc, Calypso, the Magdalene and Titania. He also painted her in more humble form in “The Spinstress,” and in everyday garb, wearing a straw hat and a pout, or sporting morning dress and a dreamy expression.
Unfortunately, the halcyon days didn’t last. After Lord Nelson’s death, Emma died, a lonely alcoholic, while Romney grew increasingly careless about his work, leaving commissioned portraits unfinished. “He didn’t always produce the goods and he disappointed a number of clients,” says Peltz. “He lost the will to follow through.”
Indeed, at the end of the exhibition is Romney’s self-portrait: The artist is slumped, staring, defensive, his lip slightly curled. A harbinger, perhaps, of the years of obscurity that awaited him.