Portrait of Emma Hamilton

Angelica Kauffmann Swiss
Sitter Lady Emma Hamilton British

Not on view

The lives of two remarkable eighteenth-century women connect in this image. The Swiss-born artist Angelica Kauffmann had trained in Italy with her painter father, moved to London in 1766, and been elected a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768. As a successful subject painter and portraitist, her works often centered on female subjects and this life-sized study relates to a full-length oil of 1791 (Private Collection) that portrays Emma, Lady Hamilton as the Comic Muse. The subject’s beauty, dramatic flair and rise in social position had turned her into a celebrity and this image coincides with her recent marriage to Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy to Naples—the couple returned to London for the ceremony.
Emma had been born in Cheshire, the daughter of a blacksmith whose death forced her to seek employment as a nursemaid in London at the age of thirteen. Her beauty attracted a series of aristocratic men and, by 1782 she was living with the Hon. Charles Greville. He introduced Emma to the artist George Romney—whose favorite model she soon became—but Greville needed to marry a fortune, so persuaded his middle-aged uncle, Sir William Hamilton, to take the unwitting Emma back to Naples. After she recovered from the shock of this deception, Emma embraced her new life. She learned several languages and developed a series of "Attitudes"—dramatic mimed performances of classical figures acclaimed by Sir William’s guests. She became Hamilton’s mistress and then his wife, an astounding change of rank at that time. Kauffmann drew Emma at twenty-six, before she began to put on weight and lose her looks. Those disadvantages did not prevent her from pursuing an internationally scandalous affair with Admiral Horatio Nelson from 1798, which began when the naval hero came to Naples ro recuperate after the Battle of Aboukir Bay.

Portrait of Emma Hamilton, Angelica Kauffmann (Swiss, Chur 1741–1807 Rome), Black and white chalk, on gray prepared paper

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