George Romney ranks with Reynolds and Gainsborough as one of the finest society portrait painters of the eighteenth century. The son of a cabinetmaker, he was apprenticed first to his father and then in 1755 to the itinerant portrait painter Christopher Steele. In 1757 Romney set up a portrait practice in Kendal.
In 1762 Romney left his wife and family in Kendal and moved to London to seek his fortune. He specialised in portraits and historical pictures such as The Death of General Wolfe, shown at the Society of Arts in 1763. The following year he visited Paris, but was dismissive of modern French art. Romney’s society portraits of 1764-73 show a grandeur of treatment and a graceful, elongated neoclassical style.
Romney went to Rome in 1773 with the miniature painter Ozias Humphry, in order to study Italian art, particularly the work of Michelangelo and Raphael. Although he had a reputation for reclusiveness, Romney’s broadly-brushed pen and ink drawings of dramatic figural scenes have affinity with the work of Abildgaard, Sergel, Joseph Wright of Derby and other members of the Fuseli circle in Rome.
Romney returned to England via Florence, Bologna, Ferrara, Venice and Parma in 1775. He took a lease on Francis Cotes’s grand house at 24 Cavendish Square and quickly re-established his portrait practice. His sitter books record some 1500 sitters between 1776 and 1795; he excelled at painting beautiful and glamorous society women, their elegant poses informed by the study of Italian art. Romney hankered after success as a history painter and produced a painting of The Tempest for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery in 1790, as well as his many portraits of Emma Hamilton (then Emma Hart) in allegorical or classical guise. These portraits of Emma are a perfect fusion of Emma’s theatrical instinct with Romney’s Romantic bravura brushwork; his love for her was not requited.
Visiting Revolutionary France in 1790, Romney admired a flourishing school of history painting in the work of David and other neoclassical artists. His instinct to express himself as a history painter found vent in numerous dashing, emotionally charged drawings, including many on subjects from Milton, but in few large history paintings. In 1798 Romney moved to a new large house and studio in Hampstead, but soon after suffered a series of strokes. The following year he moved back to his long-neglected wife in Kendal and died there in 1802. He was a melancholy, sensitive man, who triumphed in his chosen sphere of portraiture but always longed for recognition in the so-called ‘higher’ category of history painting. His friend Flaxman wrote of him: ‘his heart and soul were engaged in the pursuit of historical and ideal painting’, but his stunning portraits are among the most impressive of his century.
The work of George Romney is represented in the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate Gallery, London; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, California.