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Whilst fellow portraitsts of the 18th century such as Reynolds & Gainsborough have flourished post-death in both reputation and renown; George Romney, a veritable giant of that same era, is today but a gallery glance in comparison to the continual popularity of the aforementioned duo. Is this fair? Perhaps so, as while skilful in execution, a majority of Romney’s work is reptitive & facile. There are gems however, with these select pieces fascinating not only through way of their accurate, compelling portrayals of people from a time lost, but also through their subtle, playful invention.
Researching today’s piece I perused a number of similar painters from the same era, finding an alarming abudnance of great pieces by artists who hold no recognition to the (or, at least myself as an) average art fan. Perhaps Romney isn’t remebered then for being less than this contemporary talents, rather because that time was just so good collectively for this style.
Mrs Russell and Child (1786)
There is a sweet intimacy about this mother & daugher portrait that elevates it above the usual stationary sitting stodge. Mrs Russell, appearing to us in side profile as if caught between attention for the watching painter and her distracted child, is angled as such that it belies the formality of the occassion. Her relaxed depiction allows us to appreciate the wide complex curves of her dress. The way the light plays against the pink seamed fabric creates a believable depth amidst the folds of the gown twisted by her parental pivot.
This being a portrait of its historical circumstance, there are many signifiers throughout freighting the image with intended meaning. Her left hand for example is suggestive both of marraige to Mr Russell through its ring, as well as education in its rest atop a heavy, gilded book. Her right hand is rendered wonderful through a single, maternal finger that holds her daughter steady as she herself stares at her own reflection staring back. Similar to her mother, the girl’s dress is really well imagined, this time through its sublime meld of whites. The cute red shoes popping out also reinforce the image’s overall sentimental intent.
Through the mirror we appreciate then not only more of the child, but also more of the room itself. Beneath her raised left arm a door is visible, its panelling ornate and complex, the edge s fanciful as the mirror’s own to which the girl confronts herself within. At the top right a window is visible, something which gifts ‘Mrs Russell and Child’ a great depth of reality through not only its suggestion as a physical background to the image that we, as observer, are housed within. But also as explanation of the picture’s light, this shine that blends believable against the sitters, sheening it with a lifelike texturing.
The child perhaps is the ultimate metaphor for the vanity of the portrait. The striving not only to preserve one’s image for future generations and provide chronicle, but also give a thing of a narcissisicm. A reminder of your own myth.
Lady Hamilton as Nature (1782)
In 1782, George Romney’s life changed forever. It was here that he first met his greatest muse & constant infatuation, Emma ‘Lady Hamilton’ Hart; perhaps best known now as Lord Nelson’s mistress. Romney would paint the woman in various guises and poses throughout his career, stylising her as Ariadne & Cleopatra amongst other figure of lore in a storied catalogue of portrayals.
From the off within ‘Lady Hamilton as Nature’ it is the rich juxtaposition that makes the image so captivating. Here is at once both an alluring temptress, rendered cleverly with a slight lip parting that requires a little study to realise thus forcing close physical examination, as well as her dog, a steadfast, obedient hound that seems to pierce straight into the heart of the viewer even more so than its owner.
Romney’s love of ‘Nature’ here is clear, her eyes both painted with a charmed glint, her cheeks rich & rosy. Her look is kind and genuine. The hair seeming similar to the leafs above her in its dense flow – a single lock even seems to have crept over the shoulder, catching gold in the sunlight behind.
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