Liverpool artwork of the day – Thursday March 08 2007. ‘Lady Hamilton as Bacchante’ by Elizabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) in Lady Lever Gallery
Its International Women’s Day so here is a painting of a woman by a woman and there aren’t many 18th century women artists in the galleries.
Emma Hart was born Amy Lyon around 1761 at Ness on the Wirral. She was the daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith and a servant woman. Amy was brought up in the countryside of Flintshire in Wales by her grandmother. In 1778 Emma moved to London.
Her beauty and larger than life character was attractive to rich and aristocratic men. The most famous of these included Charles Francis Greville, the son of the Earl of Warwick. Lord Nelson was her last lover and the father of her daughter. Emma became the model for established artists such as Reynolds, Hoppner and Lawrence, but it was George Romney who admired her most. He painted around forty portraits of her. In 1785 Greville, bored with Emma, sent her off to his widowed uncle Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), the English Ambassador to Naples and a collector of antiquities and works of art. Emma thought of her journey as a short stay but she eventually accepted her new role as the official mistress of Sir William Hamilton and married him in 1791.
Vigée Lebrun had a flair for innovative poses and was known for painting women sitters with extraordinary sensitivity. She was able to capture their characters in their facial expressions. She greatly admired Rubens after seeing his works in a tour of the Low Countries in 1781. This portrait’s opaque quality perhaps reflects the influence of Rembrandt on her work. Her art is also characterised by optimism and her sitters are often smiling. Lady Hamilton’s smile and gaze at the viewer is an invitation to admire her youth and rejoice at her dance. Emma was the personification of ecstasy, love, youth and above all the untamed spirit of the wild Dionysiac rituals and dances, which decorate some of the ancient Greek pots from the Hamilton collection at the Lady Lever Art Gallery