Born Amy Lyon, later changing her name to Emma Hart, she began her ascent as a maid at the Drury Lane Theatre. A talented model and actress, she first came to prominence at the age of fifteen when she was employed for several months as a hostess and entertainer at Uppark Hall by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, following which she rose rapidly though society as the mistress of a succession of increasingly prominent aristocrats, culminating with Sir William Hamilton, the great antiquary and British Envoy to Naples, whom she finally married in 1791. In Naples, Emma had started to perform what became known as her Attitudes, which inspired both the present work and the companion to this painting which shows her in the guise of Hebe.
Emma’s tableaux vivants were based on Romney's idea of combining classical poses with modern allure. She had her dressmaker make dresses modelled on those worn by peasant islanders in the Bay of Naples, as well as the loose-fitting garments she often wore when modelling for Romney. She would pair these tunics with a few large shawls or veils, draping herself in folds of cloth and posing in such a way as to evoke popular images from Greco-Roman mythology. This cross between postures, dance, and acting was first revealed in spring 1787 by Sir William to a large group of European guests at his home in Naples, who quickly took to this new form of entertainment. It formed a sort of charade, with the audience guessing the names of the classical characters and scenes Emma portrayed. The performance was a sensation, attracting visitors from across Europe. Emma posed as various classical figures from Medea to Queen Cleopatra, and her performances charmed aristocrats, artists such as Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, writers – including the great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who wrote that her wonderful transformations were ‘like nothing you have ever seen before’ – and kings and queens alike, setting off new dance trends across Europe and starting a fashion for a draped Grecian style of dress.
A celebrated beauty and talented singer, with a lively intelligence and whit, in Naples Emma became a European celebrity. Fluent in both French and Italian, she was a friend of Queen Maria Carolina, the wife of King Ferdinand and sister of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and established herself as an influential political hostess. Emma first met Nelson when, as wife of the British Envoy, she entertained him upon his arrival in the Bay of Naples to pick up reinforcements in 1793 and captivated the young naval officer with her beauty and charm. Five years later he returned to Naples a living legend and the most famous Englishman in the world, following his victory at the Battle of the Nile, and Emma is said to have flung herself upon him in admiration, calling out 'Oh God, is it possible' as she fainted upon his chest. Nelson's adventures had severely effected his health, however, not least in the loss of his right arm. Emma nursed him under her husband's roof and the two soon after started a passionate affair. In 1799 the Hamilton's were recalled to England and were escorted across Europe by Nelson, travelling via Vienna, before finally being welcomed home by celebratory crowds. The affair, which had been tolerated, perhaps even encouraged, by her husband in Naples, bloomed and in January 1801 Emma gave birth to Nelson's daughter, Horatia, at Sir William's rented home in Clarges Street, 23 Piccadilly, London. By the autumn of the same year, Nelson bought Merton Place, a small ramshackle house on the outskirts of modern-day Wimbledon. There he lived openly with Emma, Sir William, and Emma's mother, in a ménage à trois that both fascinated and scandalised the public. The newspapers reported on their every move, eventually inducing the Admiralty to send Nelson back to sea, if only to get him away from Emma. When he died, at the very moment of his greatest achievement aboard H.M.S. Victory after winning the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Nelson's last request was to have his grey pigtail sent home to Emma and he left instruction in his will to the British Government that she and Horatia were to be provided for - instructions that were duly ignored.
Gavin Hamilton was first introduced to Emma in 1785 in the company of Charles Greville, the nephew of Sir William Hamilton. They met again the following spring when Gavin, who was on the point of departing for Italy, offered to accompany Emma and her mother to Naples where she was to stay with Sir William in the Palazzo Sessa. It was during this voyage that he produced many of the works which were to find their way into Sir William’s collection, including this ravishing portrait of Emma in the guise of a sibyl. The composition of the work derives from paintings of the sibyls by the seventeenth-century Bolognese artists Domenichino, Guercino and Guido Reni. Hamilton was significantly influenced by these artists and he became one of the leading forces in the emergence of neo-classicism in European painting at the time. In Rome he met Robert Adam, the father of neo-classical architecture, in 1757 and over the course of the next three decades produced an impressive array of history paintings in conjunction with Adam, including the decorative scheme of eight works on the theme of Paris and Helen painted for the Stanza d’Elena in the Villa Borghese. Hamilton had always been drawn to history painting, and had first travelled to Rome in 1748 'to perfect himself in that branch of fine arts'.2 With the exception of short periods in Scotland he remained in Italy for the rest of his life. Hamilton became increasingly drawn to portraiture, and the present work represents an impressive combination of the two disciplines.
1. Catalogue of Sir William Hamilton's pictures, BM Add. MSS 41200, folios 121-26
2. J. Lloyd Williams, Gavin Hamilton 1723-1798, 1994, p. 5.
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