This painting is of a modern woman impersonating the famous Greek lyric poet Sappho (born probably about 620 BC, died around 550 BC). It is by the English artist Richard Westall (born in 1765, died in 1836). Westall specialised in portraits of literary figures, such as Lord Byron, and paintings of historical events. The painting is known as ‘The Artist's Wife as Sappho’ but Westall never married. It has therefore been suggested that the model was either Emma, Lady Hamilton, or the artist's sister Mary, who married the artist William Daniell. Another possible candidate is Westall's other sister Anne, who, like Sappho, was blind.
In antiquity Sappho was counted among the greatest of poets. She was regularly honoured in classical art. Sappho’s erotically charged poems sometimes made reference to her desire and appreciation for women. Indeed it is the erotic content of her poems such as ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’, that gave the world the adjectives ‘sapphic’ and ‘lesbian’. The term lesbian is derived from the island of Lesbos, where Sappho was born and lived.
It is as an icon of the erotic that Sappho came to be celebrated in the art and literature of Victorian England. Her open and intense celebration of physical love served as inspiration for Algernon Charles Swinburne, John Addington Symonds, Simeon Solomon and Lawrence Alma Tadema, for example. Westall is also known to have produced another work dedicated to the poet, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1796, entitled ‘Sappho in the Lesbian Shades Chanting the Hymn of Love’.
Though Sappho has more recently become an icon for lesbian woman, much of the Victorian art featuring her image made little reference to same-sex desire. This painting is no exception. Though the painting undoubtedly depicts Sappho as a sensuous woman, it gives no indication of whom is the focus of her passion.