This celebrated portrait of the famed beauty Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, stands as a testament to the abilities of one of the most talented female artists in the canon. Known in two versions, the portrait achieved almost immediate renown and remained, for the rest of her life, Vigée Le Brun’s greatest achievement. She herself felt that the portrait represented the pinnacle of her career, as it, of all her works, most successfully transcended portraiture, entering into the academically hallowed field of history painting. It also remained one of her favourite works. In her Souvenirs of 1835, Vigée Le Brun recounted the effect the work had on a group of young artists in Parma: ‘Having spoken of their desire to meet me, they continued by saying that they would very much like to see one of my paintings. Here is one I have recently completed, I replied, pointing to the Sibyl. At first their surprise held them silent; I consider this far more flattering than the most fulsome praise; several then said that they had thought the painting the work of one of the masters of their school; one actually threw himself at my feet, his eyes full of tears. I was even more moved, more delighted with their admiration since the Sibyl had always been one of my favourite works. If any among my readers would accuse me of vanity, I beg them to reflect that an artist works all his life to experience two or three moments such as the one I have just described.’
Earlier depictions of Emma painted by George Romney, such as Emma Hart as Circe (fig. 1; Rothschild Collection, Waddesdon Manor), a sketch for which is at Tate Britain, and Emma Hart as Ariadne (London, National Maritime Museum), though they may have pertained to depict her in classical guise, remained rooted in the British portraiture tradition. However, Le Brun’s more mature work can only be correctly understood in respect to the Italian trajectory that led her to artists such as Annibale Carracci, and from him to Domenichino, whose own Cumaean Sybil (fig. 2; Rome, Galleria Borghese) has rightly been identified as one of the direct influences on the present composition. As evidenced by the present portrait, Le Brun’s wonderfully rich and controlled brushwork lends itself perfectly to the earlier master’s style, which aimed to surpass the imperfections of nature, developing a superior idea del bello (idea of beauty). Indeed, her composition can be said to have bettered even Emma’s legendary beauty, as the artist herself recounted: ‘I went [to the Hamilton residence] everyday, desiring to progress quickly with the picture. The duchesse de Fleury and the Princess Joseph de Monaco were present at the third sitting, which was the last. I had wound a scarf round her head in the shape of a turban, one end hanging down in graceful folds. This headdress so beautified her that the ladies declared she looked ravishing ... She went to her apartment to change [for dinner], and when she came back … her new costume, which was a very ordinary one … had so altered her to her disadvantage that the two ladies had all the difficulty in the world in recognising her’.
As the French Revolution erupted violently in July 1789, Vigée Le Brun fell into a depression and, realising that her close association with Queen Marie-Antoinette placed her in danger, sought refuge in the homes of relatives. On 6 October, as the mobs were invading Versailles to take the royal family back to Paris, she fled France in one of the first waves of emigration, departing for Rome with her daughter and her governess, in what would be the start of a twelve-year exile. Although personally unsettling, her years in exile were professionally successful and highly productive as she travelled through Italy, Austria, Russia, Germany, England and Switzerland, welcomed into each European court as a revered survivor of the final days of the Ancien Régime and showered with commissions from foreign aristocrats and fellow refugees alike.
Vigée Le Brun arrived in Naples in April 1790, having received a number of important commissions there arranged through the intervention of Queen Maria Carolina, a sister of Marie-Antoinette. Over the next two years, the artist shuttled back and forth between Naples and Rome, necessitated by her relentless schedule of portrait commissions. It was on her third extended stay in Naples, in the spring of 1791, that she began work on the portrait of Emma Hamilton as the Cumaean Sibyl, the work that the artist herself would come to regard as her personal favourite. It is the last of three portraits that Vigée Le Brun made of the celebrated beauty who, just a few months later, would become the wife of Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), English Minister to Naples and a renowned archeologist, vulcanologist, and connoisseur of ancient art, whose collection of antiquities, vases and carved gems would eventually form the nucleus of the British Museum.
Vigée Le Brun writes in her Souvenirs (1835) that she met her glamorous sitter only days after she arrived in Naples in the spring of 1790, when Sir William Hamilton appeared at her studio and introduced them: ‘…he requested that my first portrait in the town might be that of an exceptionally beautiful woman whom he introduced to me as Mme. Hart, his mistress; she later became Lady Hamilton, and her beauty brought her great fame.’ A legendary beauty, Emma Hart was, by the time of her first meeting with Vigée Le Brun, one of the most frequently painted models in Europe and famously the subject of dozens of portraits by George Romney, as well as by a host of other painters throughout the continent.
‘The life of Lady Hamilton reads like a romantic fiction,’ wrote Vigée Le Brun. Christened Emy Lyon on 12 May 1765 in the Welsh mining town of Denhall, she was the daughter of an illiterate blacksmith and his wife. Her father died months after her birth and, at the age of 12, she entered domestic service in the home of a local surgeon. Her impoverished mother took a position as a servant in London, where she changed her surname to Cadogan. Emy joined her there and was engaged as a children’s nanny, eventually employed by Thomas Linley, owner of the royal theatre of Drury Lane. Assuming the name of Emma Hart, she became the mistress of several well-born men until December 1781, when, pregnant and abandoned, she appealed to another protector, Charles Francis Greville, second son of the Earl of Warwick and a descendant, on his mother’s side, of the second Duke of Hamilton. Greville set her up in a modest house in Edgware Row with her mother and newborn daughter. In 1782, he introduced Emma to the painter George Romney, who painted her in an extended series of portraits, usually in literary, historical or mythological guise; when sold, the pictures netted Greville a portion of the proceeds.
In 1784, Emma met Greville’s recently widowed uncle, Sir William Hamilton, who had been serving for two decades as Britain’s emissary to the Bourbon Court at Naples. Immediately besotted with her beauty and vivacity, Sir William commissioned his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint her as a Bacchante, and soon followed portraits by Richard Cosway, Dominique Vivant-Denon, Gavin Hamilton, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Angelica Kauffman, Pietro Novelli and Wilhelm Tischbein, among others, making Emma Hart perhaps the most often painted Englishwoman of her era. With Greville intending to marry an heiress who would provide him with the income he required, Emma was sent off to Naples in March 1786; by November of that year, she was installed as Hamilton’s mistress in an apartment in his official residence in the Palazzo Sessa, overlooking the Bay of Naples. After quickly learning French and Italian, she charmed her way into the highest echelons of Neapolitan society, becoming confidante to Maria Carolina.
Emma became a conspicuous personality in Naples, applauded for her peculiar entertainments known as ‘Attitudes’ or ‘tableaux vivants’, which were highly dramatic forms of posturing or pantomimes in which she assumed poses of famous historical, literary or artistic characters, a gift which had certainly inspired Romney’s portraits of her and which was encouraged by Hamilton. Her Medea and Niobe were the most acclaimed of her ‘improvisations in action’. If her ‘Attitudes’ sound vaguely preposterous to modern readers, some of her contemporaries acknowledged the same, but still praised their unique dramatic execution: the comtesse de Boigne observed that while ‘the description of [them] appears silly’, they, nonetheless, ‘delighted all the spectators and excited the artists.’ Vigée Le Brun herself wrote: ‘There was nothing stranger than this faculty that Lady Hamilton acquired, allowing her to suddenly change her expression from grief to joy; thus, she was able to pose for many different characters ... She passed from sorrow to joy, from joy to terror, so rapidly and so convincingly that we were all delighted.’ No less discerning a critic than Goethe found himself mesmerised by the two performances of hers that he saw in March 1787: ‘Sir William Hamilton, who is still living here as English ambassador, has now, after many years of devotion to the arts and the study of nature, found the acme of these delights in the person of an English girl of twenty with a beautiful face and a perfect figure. He has had a Greek costume made for her which becomes her extremely. Dressed in this, she lets down her hair and, with a few shawls, gives so much variety to her poses, gestures, expressions, etc., that the spectator can hardly believe his eyes. He sees what thousands of artists would have liked to express realized before him in movements and surprising transformations … She knows how to arrange the folds of her veil to match each mood, and has a hundred ways of turning it into a headdress. The old knight idolizes her and is quite enthusiastic about everything she does. In her he has found all the antiquities, all the profiles of Sicilian coins, even the Apollo Belvedere. This much is certain: as a performance, it’s like nothing you ever saw before in your life.’
Vigée Le Brun painted three portraits of Emma Hart, works that are as much history paintings as likenesses of their famous sitter. In the first, Emma is depicted as a Bacchante (or Ariadne) reclining in a grotto by the sea. That work, now in a private collection, was commissioned by Sir William Hamilton and begun shortly after their first meeting in the spring of 1790. In the second portrait (fig. 3; Cheshire, Port Sunlight, Lady Lever Art Gallery), which the artist retained in her own collection until her death in 1842, Emma is shown at three-quarter-length dancing before Mount Vesuvius with a tambourine in her hand. For the third and final portrait, which Vigée Le Brun considered one of her masterpieces, the sitter appears as the Cumaean Sibyl, writing a Greek text on a scroll. In antiquity, the Sibyl of Cumae – named after the site of a town founded by the Greeks northwest of Naples on the coast of Campania – was a seer and oracle who uttered prophesy under the divine inspiration of Apollo.
The three sittings that Emma gave the artist took place in the summer of 1791 at the Hamilton villa at Caserta, 25 miles north of Naples. Vigée Le Brun finished the portrait somewhat later, following her return to Rome, at which point she signed and dated it ‘1792’. It appears to have been commissioned by the comtesse du Barry’s lover, the duc de Brissac, then the governor of Paris and head of Louis XVI’s palace guard. The original painting is today in the Capricorn Foundation at Ramsbury Manor, Wiltshire. The present painting is an exact, autograph replica of the prime version. Why Vigée Le Brun made two versions of the painting, of equally high quality and in quick succession, is unclear. Joseph Baillio has speculated that the immediate acclaim with which the painting was received may have prompted the artist to keep it for herself, to accompany her from city to city in her exile as her artistic ‘calling card’. If this theory is correct, the present replica would then have been made to fulfil the commission from Brissac and, indeed, the present canvas was in the Cossé-Brissac collection in Paris until 1919. It may also have been the version sent to Paris from St. Petersburg to be exhibited in the Salon of 1798; a full-sized version was in the estate sale of the artist’s ex-husband, J.-B.-P. Le Brun, sold at auction on 16 May 1814, lot 80. However, it is also possible that she kept the signed and dated picture for herself simply because, by the time it was completed and ready for delivery, the duc de Brissac was dead, having been slain in a revolutionary massacre on 9 September 1792. In any event, Vigée Le Brun kept the prime version, which travelled with her to Austria, Russia, Germany and England, and was used to advertise and promote her unexcelled abilities as a portrait painter; it was only in 1819 that she was coerced into selling it to the duc de Berry.
A superb, bust-length version of the composition (today in a private collection) appears in the list of paintings from her hand that Vigée Le Brun included as an appendix to her memoirs; she presented it as a gift to Sir William Hamilton who, she notes acidly, ‘without hesitating, sold it.’ It appeared in Hamilton’s sale at Christie’s in 1801, lot 28, and was purchased there by Alleyne FitzHerbert, 1st Baron St Helens, who also owned Mme Le Brun’s original Self-Portrait of the Artist Wearing a Straw Hat (1782; Private collection). Vigée Le Brun was certainly prompted to paint Emma Hart in historical guises in all three portraits of her by the sitter’s much-admired talent for ‘Attitudes’ and by Hamilton’s enthusiasm for them. The present painting is virtually a tableau vivant laid down on canvas, with the sitter dressed in ‘Greek’ costume and a turban flatteringly framing her lovely face as she gazes heavenward for inspiration. The picture’s great success was born of Vigée Le Brun’s ability to convey Emma’s beauty, sensuality and pure animal magnetism with such force while still maintaining a sense of dignity and decorum. Soon after completing it, she took it with her on a journey to Vienna. Here, she explains, ’I immediately painted the portrait of the daughter of the Spanish Ambassador, mademoiselle de Kaguenek … as well as the Baron and Baroness de Strogonoff. My Sibyl, which people came in their droves to admire, played no small part in convincing people to ask me to paint them’.
If Vigée Le Brun’s later years were filled with more triumphs and continuing professional success, Emma Hart’s years were to be far fewer in number and marked by sorrows. She married Sir William in London in September 1791, becoming Lady Hamilton. In 1798, she began her notorious love affair with Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), later the storied hero of the Battle of Trafalgar. She returned to England with her husband and her lover in 1800, and the next year gave birth to Nelson’s daughter, Horatia. Tragically, Hamilton and Nelson died within two years of each other. Emma fell into catastrophic debt and alcoholism and was finally imprisoned in 1813 for insolvency. Upon her release from prison, she fled to Calais and died in 1815, penniless, aged 50.
We are grateful to Joseph Baillio for his assistance with this entry. He will be including the present lot in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Vigée Le Brun.