In Greek mythology, Iphigenia was the daughter of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and his queen Clytemnestra. Her sacrifice was demanded by the goddess Artemis in order for the Greeks to set in motion the Trojan Wars, but (in many versions of the Iphigenia story) her life was spared at the last moment. She then became a priestess of Artemis at Tauris where later she was faced with the task of sacrificing her younger brother Orestes. The two parts of the myth, Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris, received classic embodiment in a pair of tragedies by Euripides. In a list of subjects under contemplation for pictures noted around 1773 in a Roman sketchbook (Yale Center for British Art) Romney wrote: Ephegenia sacrificing from Euripides see a sacrifice in the Aldobrandini marriage – the first fleeting evidence of his interest in the subject.
Some years after his return from Italy in 1775, Romney became friendly with the Rev. Robert Potter, who enjoyed literary celebrity at the end of the 1770s and in the early 1780s as a translator of Greek tragedies. Potter’s translations of Euripides were appearing between 1781 and 1783 and by the latter date Romney had begun using Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, as a model for paintings of figures from Greek myth such as Cassandra and Circe. Although it was only in the 1790s that Romney completed a painting of her personifying Iphigenia, it may well be that artist and model had already discussed a treatment: noticeably, Iphigenia was one of the Attitudes that Emma perfected while in Naples in the late 1780s, which are often said to have germinated in her sessions modelling for Romney earlier in the decade.
Complicating this background of Romney’s assimilation of literary source and creative impetus, however, an Iphigenia also figures in the story of Cimon and Iphigenia re-told in the fourteenth-century Decameron of Boccaccio, which was well-known to English readers in the version by John Dryden that appeared in his Fables Ancient and Modern. This Iphigenia was a beautiful maiden who is accidentally espied, asleep with her attendants in a coppice, by the well-born lout Cimon, an encounter which transforms him into an elegant scholar. The best-known group of Romney’s Iphigenia subjects focuses on the intertwined bodies of the semi-nude maidens in Dryden’s poem, sometimes with the voyeur figure of Cimon indicated or partially indicated (versions of this type include: Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, LD 163 (exh. Drawings by George Romney from the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, Cambridge 1977, no. 33); one formerly with Agnew’s (exh. Romney Drawings, Agnew’s June 2002, no. 25; repr.); one formerly with The Drawing Shop, New York (exh. The Drawings of George Romney, Smith College Museum of Art 1962, no. 43, repr. Pl. XVI), and another in Princeton Art Museum (x1942-117), all of which are substantial sheets in ink and wash; there is also a thumbnail pencil sketch in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (B1979.12.113).) .
But a second group of Iphigenia drawings, of which the present drawing is a notable example, depicts the reclining figure of Iphigenia alone, seen from behind her left shoulder, head flung back. This type, less obviously related to the Dryden source, has acquired the traditional title of Iphigenia Waking and is more homogenous than the first: there is less compositional variation, and the features of the model are recognisably the same in each case (and bear more than a passing resemblance to Emma). One version, with some elements of a woodland setting in the background, was auctioned at Christie’s on 6 June 2002, lot 16; but perhaps the most imposing one of all is in the Musée Departemental des Vosges, Epinal, where the viewer is set further back, and the dark background and a sinister striding male figure in the distance introduce a distinct atmosphere of menace.
The Iphigenia Waking drawings are dateable to the early 1780s, when Romney was beginning to turn to black ink and grey wash in preference to his former sepia, and they probably evolved over a relatively short timespan. They have a crisp authority, with their sense of the basic design being pre-conceived and only its relatively incidental elements being under exploration. Yet as with so many of Romney’s most poetical images, they remained as drawings and were never realised as a painting. It is tempting to think that the complexity of the literary backfield may have led to a loss of creative focus, but to argue this overlooks Romney’s lifelong propensity for avoiding the task of ‘working up’ and his innate preference for leaving his designs to function graphically, in as spontaneously realised a form as possible.
We are grateful to Alex Kidson for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.