George Romney was one of the finest society portrait painters of the eighteenth century. Throughout his career Romney strove to be renowned for elevated historical and literary subjects but instead carved a niche for lyrical and less formal portraits than those of his contemporaries George Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.
Born the son of a cabinet maker, Romney was apprenticed first to his father and then in 1755 to the portrait painter Christopher Steel. Two years later, Romney set up is own portrait studio in Kendal in the north of England, but shortly after left his wife and family there to pursue his career in London. In 1773 Romney visited Rome to study Italian art, most notably that of Michelangelo and Raphael, and returned to England via Florence, Bologna, Ferrara, Venice and Parma, establishing his portraiture studio in London upon his return in 1775. Between 1776 and 1795 his sitter books record that he had over 1500 sitters. Romney excelled, and delighted in, painting glamorous society women, their poses inspired by the artists’ study of Italian art, often depicted in allegorical or classical guise.
During the French Revolution in the 1790s, Romney admired the flourishing school of history painting of David, Ingres and other neoclassical artists, but despite wishing to express himself as a history painter, he only produced a number of emotionally charged drawings and very few large history paintings over the course of his late career. In the last fifteen years of Romney’s working life, the artist became captivated by his favourite model and muse, Emma Hart, later the celebrated Lady Hamilton, mistress to Lord Nelson. Romney produced a series of Shakespearian and Classical subjects with Lady Hamilton as his model which count among the most imaginative and poetic canvases of their time.
In 1798 Romney moved to a larger house and studio in Hampstead in London but shortly after suffered a series of strokes. In 1799 Romney moved back to his wife in Kendall, where he died three years later. He left behind the legacy of one of Britain’s most renowned portrait painters and his work now belongs to some of the most notable private and public institutions, including the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate Britain in London, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, California.