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Emma Hart (1765–1815) rose to fame as the wife of the diplomat and antiquarian Sir William Hamilton and the lover of Admiral Lord Nelson. In this cut-down and unfinished painting she is shown as Circe, the mythological sorceress who enslaved men by turning them into animals. Romney was captivated by Emma’s beauty and sexual attraction, and she became his favourite model. He painted her innumerable times in classical and fanciful disguises. Although Romney was considered to be Joshua Reynolds’s main rival in portraiture, he always longed to be a ‘history’ painter.

February 2010