Brush with Fame

LONDON — She stares wide-eyed from the canvas, lips slightly parted, auburn hair spilling over creamy shoulders. Sexy, expressive and famous for her ability to hold a pose for hours, Emma Hart — later Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson’s...

But when 16-year-old Emma, an unwed mother and at the time the mistress of Romney’s friend Charles Greville, burst onto the scene in 1782, Romney’s career changed forever. Inspired by Emma’s beauty, big personality and social ambitions, he began painting "creative portraits" alongside the routine portraits of his wealthy patrons.

Romney transformed Emma into Circe, Joan of Arc, Calypso, the Magdalene and Titania. He also painted her in more humble form in "The Spinstress," and in everyday garb, wearing a straw hat and a pout, or sporting morning dress and a dreamy expression.

Unfortunately, the halcyon days didn’t last. After Lord Nelson’s death, Emma died, a lonely alcoholic, while Romney grew increasingly careless about his work, leaving commissioned portraits unfinished. "He didn’t always produce the goods and he disappointed a number of clients," says Peltz. "He lost the will to follow through."

Indeed, at the end of the exhibition is Romney’s self-portrait: The artist is slumped, staring, defensive, his lip slightly curled. A harbinger, perhaps, of the years of obscurity that awaited him.
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