A meeting of two revolutionary women

.painting of Lady Hamilton dancing with a tambourine

This striking portrait of Emma Hamilton, by the French artist Vigée Le Brun, is on display in the Lady Lever Art Gallery's South End galleries. Thanks to the artist's memoirs, published at the end of her long painting career in 1836-37, we know a lot about the meeting of these two remarkable women.

Vigée first met Emma when the artist arrived in Naples in 1790, having fled Paris with her 9 year old daughter, at the start of the French Revolution in 1789. Vigée was given refuge by the Queen of Naples, the sister of the French Queen Marie-Antoinette, whose favourite portrait painter was Vigée. When Vigée fled Paris she left her art-dealer husband, Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, behind to protect the family house and studio contents. He was later forced by the French Revolutionary government to divorce her to retain their property. She spent the next 12 years travelling around the courts of continental Europe visiting cities in Italy, Austria and Russia, making a successful living by painting portraits of royalty, aristocrats and their courtiers. 

Soon after arriving in Naples, Vigée was commissioned by the elderly British diplomat, Sir William Hamilton, to paint his young mistress Emma Hart (who was born Amy Lyon on the Wirral but later changed her name), whom he married in September 1791. In all Vigée painted Emma 3 or 4 times. The first portrait of Emma, painted in 1790, showed her as the Greek goddess Ariadne reclining in a seaside grotto and holding one of Sir William’s ancient Greek vases. The artist was eager to paint Emma, whose dramatic dance performances were famous across British and Italian society. These so-called ‘Attitudes’ involved Emma recreating the poses on her lover’s classical vases, with the help of veils and scarves. Nine of Sir William's vases are now in the collections at the Lady Lever.

The Lady Lever portrait, which was probably painted early in 1792, shows her as a Bacchante, an exuberant follower of the Roman god of wine, with vine leaves wound around her head and her long flowing chestnut hair, which greatly impressed the artist, blowing in the breeze. She dances to the rhythm of a tambourine in front of the smoking volcano Vesuvius, which could be seen from Hamilton’s rural villa, south of Naples.

The artist watched at least one performance of the ‘Attitudes’. Although she admired Emma’s beauty and acting ability, conveying different emotions quickly, she mocked her vulgar dress-sense and lack of intelligence, criticising her sarcasm. English diarists, such as Lady Holland (1771-1845) were disgusted by Emma’s ‘common’ provincial accent, recounting how Emma, while representing a water-nymph, lay her head on one of Sir William’s Etruscan vases and shouted “Doun’t be afeared Sir Willum, I’ll not crack your joug”.

Vigée left Naples in spring 1792 apparently taking the dancing Bacchante portrait with her as an advert for her artistic talents in the courts of Europe. She did meet Emma again, in England in 1804. By then Emma was the mistress of the British naval hero Admiral Nelson, who died at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Vigée kept Emma’s portrait with her until her death in Paris 1842, aged 99, when the painting was bequeathed to her niece.