Old Master Paintings

Old Master Paintings

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 85. Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante, wearing classical dress, pouring from a Greek vase.

Property from the Collection of Sir Michael Smurfit

Robert Fagan

Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante, wearing classical dress, pouring from a Greek vase

Lot Closed

April 6, 02:25 PM GMT


20,000 - 30,000 GBP

Lot Details


Property from the Collection of Sir Michael Smurfit

Robert Fagan

London 1761 - 1816 Rome

Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante, wearing classical dress, pouring from a Greek vase

oil on canvas

unframed: 96.5 x 76 cm.; 38 x 29⅞ in.;

framed: 118 x 98 cm.; 46½ x 38⅝ in.

With Dover Street Gallery, London;
Anonymous sale, London, Sotheby's, 18 May 2000, lot 68, where acquired.

Robert Fagan was born to an Irish family, from Cork, in around 1761. He grew up in Covent Garden and enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy Schools in 1781. In 1783 he travelled to the Continent, visiting France and the Low Countries and eventually reaching Italy in 1784. He settled in Rome where he worked as a portrait painter, and in 1790 he married seventeen-year-old Anna Maria Ferri, the beautiful Italian daughter of an employee of Cardinal Rezzonico, and they lived together in the artist's quarter of Via Babuino.Fagan was soon seduced by the excavations that were taking place in Italy, and in 1794, he started to ship classical works of art to England. He became a close acquaintance of Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador to Naples, who advised him during the French invasion of northern Italy in 1796 and eventually appointed him as an agent to protect and recover all English property following the war.

Emma Hart married Sir William Hamilton in London in 1791 but they lived together in Naples. Emma, originally a working-class girl from the Wirral, had been the muse of George Romney, the fashionable British portrait painter. Renowned for her beauty and her classical features, she was unsurprisingly a popular model for visiting artists in Naples. French artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who travelled there in 1790, painted Emma several times, including as a Bacchant (Lady Lever Gallery, Liverpool)2 and as Ariadne, commenting on ‘her great quantity of beautiful chestnut hair’. During the 1790s, Fagan had become well-known for painting British aristocratic women, and accounts record him as having painted Lady Clifford, Mrs Villiers (later Lady Clarendon), Lady Malden and Lady Webster (later Lady Holland).

In Fagan’s portrait of Emma Hamilton, she is dressed as a follower of Bacchus, the Greek God of wine and festivity. Holding a graceful pose, she gestures elegantly towards the wine she pours onto the hot, steaming coals below. Fagan paints her hair gathered by a red and gilt-thread headband, on which an ivy garland rests. Emma stands in a frontal pose with a strong and unfaltering stare. Fagan’s painting shows Emma adopting one of her so-called ‘attitudes’, a series of poses in which she played out scenes from classical works of art.3 Regularly taking on the guise of powerful women from ancient literature, her intense performances as figures such as Medea and Circe became popular with large audiences of grant tourists in Naples. The German poet and antiquarian Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Sir William and Emma at Palazzo Sessa in 1787, where he describes the set she created for such performances: ‘I was greatly intrigued by a chest which was standing upright. Its front had been taken off, the interior painted black and the whole set inside a splendid gilt frame. It was large enough to hold a standing human figure, and that, we were told, was exactly what it was meant for… standing against this black background in dresses of various colours, [Emma] had sometimes imitated the antique paintings of Pompeii and even more recent masterpieces’.4 On the same visit, Goethe describes a ‘secret treasure vault’, full of antiquities, from which Emma has selected a red-figure oinochoe for this pose, which dates to the fifth century BC, and a decorative bronze tripod.

There is another portrait of Emma Hamilton by Robert Fagan which shows her in the less distinguished guise of a Neapolitan peasant and is signed ‘Roma 1793’.5

A portrait of Anna Maria Ferri by Robert Fagan is in Tate Britain. See https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/fagan-anna-maria-ferri-the-artists-first-wife-t03249

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante, 1790-2, oil on canvas, 132.5 x 105.5 cm, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool. See https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/artifact/lady-hamilton-bacchante

Her attitudes are depicted in drawings by the Italian artist Pietro Antonio Novelli. See https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.70321.html

J. W. Goethe, Italian Journey 1786-1788, translated by W. H. Auden and E. Mayer, London 1962, pp. 15-16.

5 Portrait of Lady Emma Hamilton as a Neapolitan Peasant, 1793, oil on canvas, 45 x 36 cm., private collection. See https://www.wga.hu/html_m/f/fagan/hamilton.html