This unfinished, life-size sketch in oil paint represents the seventeen year-old Emma Hart (baptised as Emy Lyon, also known as Emily Lyon and Emma Lyon, later Lady Hamilton; 1765–1815) in the character of the sorceress Circe from Greek mythology. Hart wears loose white drapery exposing her throat and chest, her auburn hair piled ‘high’ in a top-knot whipped by the wind, with loose hair trailing over her bare shoulder. She stares directly outwards, her face tilted slightly downwards and her mouth opened a little in a pronounced pout. Her features are fully realised in paint, while her costume and hair are loosely brushed in and the background is very roughly sketched with apparently arbitrary brush strokes of earth colour animating the canvas; the several long, vertical strokes of white paint on the right indicate in a very approximate way the intended position of the sitter's left arm. The rough surface of the hessian fabric used as the painting’s support breaks up many of these brushstrokes, enhancing the impression of swift, almost reckless execution. This painting was among the first of Romney’s numerous portraits of Emma Hart painted over the succeeding nine years, which often represent her as characters from myth and literature. These have become the works for which Romney is best known, as Emma Hart’s complex and extremely public love life (most famously her later romance with Admiral Nelson while married to the aged Sir William Hamilton) has been mythologised by numerous biographies and historical studies.
The painting arose in connection with the sustained series of sittings Hart (referred to in Romney’s notes as ‘Mrs Hart’) made to Romney in his house in Cavendish Square, London, in the summer of 1782. Hart had become the mistress of the aristocratic politician and collector Charles Greville (1749–1809) in April of that year, moving into his home at Edgware Row, Paddington, and had already sat to Romney for a portrait (later engraved as ‘Nature’). The further sittings in the summer resulted in this painting and a closely-related full-length portrait of Hart as Circe (Waddesdon, The Rothschild Collection [Rothschild Family Trust]). The latter shows her holding in her right hand a long wand pointed towards the ground and with her left arm raised straight upwards, fingers outstretched as if casting a spell or invoking spirits. The art historian Alex Kidson, the leading modern authority on Romney, interprets this picture as a ‘study’ for the full-length painting, prepared spontaneously from the life and marking a ‘charged confrontation between artist and model’ (Kidson 2002, p.167). Hart was from a humble provincial background but was also a famously sensual beauty, already an unmarried mother (she had given birth to her daughter, in April 1782) and now swiftly installed as the lover of a wealthy older man who was not the father of that child. Romney was an established artist, but ‘moody and introverted’ according to Kidson, who posits the painting as marking a ‘decisive, intoxicating moment’ in which ‘the difference between creative and routine portraiture crystallised in his mind, and where the full expressive potential of the rapid sketch, immediate and poetic, became manifest to him’ (Kidson 2002, p.169). Whatever the psychological import of these encounters between artist and model, the resulting paintings were celebrated by contemporaries and helped enhance Romney’s reputation as an artist and Hart’s reputation as a highly sexualised beauty.
Alex Kidson, George Romney 1734–1802, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 2002, pp.167–9.