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In the second phase of her career in Europe Vigée Lebrun worked for twelve years in Italy, Austria, Germany and Russia, using her reputation as a portrait artist to the Versailles palace to attract wealthy clients. Vigée Lebrun lived in London between 1803 and 1805, at which time Lord Byron and the Prince of Wales were among her sitters, before moving back to Paris in 1805. Despite the fact that in the final phase of her artistic career her work lacked vigour and character she retained her contacts with Parisian artistic and literary circles.

Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante dates from the artist’s career in Europe. Emma Hart, or in reality Amy Lyon, was born around 1761 at Ness on the Wirral. She was the daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith and a servant woman. Amy was brought up in the countryside of Flintshire, in Wales by her grandmother. In 1778 Emma moved to London where her beauty and perhaps larger than life character was attractive to rich and aristocratic men, the most famous of which was Charles Francis Greville, the son of the Earl of Warwick.

Lord Nelson was her last lover and the father of her daughter. Emma became the model for established artists such as Reynolds, Hoppner and Lawrence but it was George Romney who admired her most and painted around forty portraits of her. In 1785 Greville, bored with Emma, sent her off to his widowed uncle Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), the English Ambassador to Naples and a collector of antiquities and works of art. Emma thought of her journey as a short stay but she eventually accepted her new role as the official mistress of Sir William Hamilton and married him in 1791.

Emma became a celebrity in Naples especially with her “attitudes” - theatrical poses of Greek mythological or other artistic and historical characters. In the portrait at the Lady Lever Art Gallery Vigée Lebrun recorded one of Emma Hamilton’s poses, the Bacchante, a name for the companion creatures of Dionysus or Bacchus, the god of wine and mystic ecstasy. In the background the volcano Vesuvius is a reference to Emma’s life and Vigée Lebrun’s stay in Naples. Emma’s talent for theatre was even recognised by writers such as Goethe.

The poet and friend of Romney, Hayley wrote that:

‘her features, like the language of Shakespeare, could exhibit all the feelings of nature and all the gradation of every passion with a most fascinating truth and felicity of expression’.

Vigée Lebrun must have recognised Emma’s charisma having painted three more portraits of her; the earliest dating from 1790 is of Emma as Ariadne (in a private collection), but with props such as a leopard skin and a wine goblet, thus making her resemble a Bacchante.

The black and brown wash of Emma as a Sibyl around 1792 (in a private collection) was Vigée Lebrun’s favourite portrait of the sitter especially because it was more of a history painting than a portrait. The artist found Emma vulgar judging from comments in her diaries such as:

“Lady Hamilton was not very intelligent, although she was exceedingly mocking and denigrating, to the point that her faults were her only means of conversation. But she was cunning, and this helped her to snare a husband”.

Vigée Lebrun had a flair for innovative poses and was known for painting women sitters with extraordinary sensitivity. She was able to capture their characters in their facial expressions. Vigée Lebrun greatly admired Rubens after seeing his works in a tour of the Low Countries in 1781 and this portrait’s opaque quality perhaps reflects the influence of Rembrandt on Vigée Lebrun’s work.

Her art is also characterised by optimism, her sitters are often smiling. Lady Hamilton’s smile and gaze at the viewer is an invitation to admire her youth and rejoice at her dance. Emma was the personification of ecstasy, love, youth and above all the untamed spirit of the wild Dionysiac rituals and dances, which decorate some of the ancient Greek pots from the Hamilton collection at the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

In the second half of the 18th century, female artists in France such as Elizabeth Vigée Lebrun, Labille-Guiard and Anna Vallayer-Coster achieved a professional status that was unusual for that time, given the restrictions in art education for women. Elizabeth Vigée Lebrun’s father was a minor portrait artist working in pastels and her mother was a hairdresser.

Vigée Lebrun was self-taught as an artist, teaching herself by copying works in museums, private collections and artists’ studios. The study of the nude from a live model was forbidden to all female artists in the 18th century. Vigée Lebrun made her first portraits from her family members. Her marriage to Jean Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun, an artist, restorer, critic and dealer enabled her to establish a career in the aristocratic circles of Paris and she soon became a court painter to Queen Marie Antoinette.

From 1778 Vigée Lebrun completed a number of portraits of the Queen idealising and glorifying her. In 1787 the artist created a different image of the Queen in an official attempt by the Court to improve her reputation, which was that of being hostile to the public, frivolous and promiscuous. The commission was issued in 1785 from the office of the King’s Director of Buildings and Vigée Lebrun received the colossal sum of 18,000 livres. She painted the Queen in simple clothes surrounded by her beloved three children, emphasising the role of the Queen as not simply the mother of her children but also the mother figure of the nation.

However the reputation of Marie Antoinette could not be easily restored, especially during a time of political and social upheaval before the French Revolution. The portrait (now in the Musée National du Château de Versailles) was only hung in the 1787 official Salon after the official opening of the exhibition, for fear of public attack. Despite Vigée Lebrun’s recognition as an important painter in France, her reputation as a court painter at a time of political instability meant that she faced public hostility. Following accusations of an affair with the exiled finance minister Calonne she left France together with her daughter in 1789.