Emma Hamilton: The woman behind the painting


The model for the classical nymph depicted in The Snake in the Grass may be Emma Hamilton, best known as the lover of Admiral Horatio Nelson, but also a woman with an eventful life and a unique artistic talent.

Born Amy Lyon in 1765 in a village in Cheshire amidst humble origins, she was determined to uplift her position in society. Changing her name to Emma Hart, she would later become Lady Hamilton after her marriage to Sir William Hamilton in 1791, a title that she used for the rest of her life.

Emma travelled to London in her early teens and started to work as a servant in the theatre district of Covent Garden. There she was discovered by playboy Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh. Emma became his mistress, but when she fell pregnant he abandoned her. It is probably at this time that Emma started to model for artists, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter of The Snake in the Grass.

A new protector, Charles Greville, introduced her to George Romney, a famous portrait painter. His ambition as an artist led him on a trip to Italy, where he immersed himself in classical antiquity and the work of Italian Renaissance masters. Romney’s typical clients were from the British aristocracy and Emma, born into poverty, became a subject of great inspiration and experimentation.

As well as her physical beauty, Emma was also a natural performer, able to translate allegorical, mythological and literary personas into a legible and dramatic form. The Snake in the Grass, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1785, depicts Cupid untying the girdle of Venus. The nymph is reclining, her right arm is raised and her hand is covering half of her face. Other mythological figures impersonated by Emma were Circe, Bacchante, Titania and Medea.

Despite becoming the most painted woman of her time, Emma remained devoted to Charles Greville who in the meantime had planned to marry a rich heiress. He decided to send Emma and her mother to Naples to stay with his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador there. Hamilton already knew Emma and he had already commissioned paintings of her from Romney and Reynolds to hang in his palazzo in Naples.

Emma found Naples very inspirational. In the Italian town she had the formal education that she always dreamed of. In less than a year Emma made great achievements in learning new languages and became fluent in Italian and French. She took lessons in dancing and singing and she developed her very own form of art: the Attitudes. These performances consisted of creating and holding poses inspired by ancient sculpture and old master paintings to evoke a range of emotions and scenarios. Emma’s inspiration for her Attitudes came from the Covent Garden theatre, Romney’s studio and Sir William’s collection of Roman and Greek statues.

In Naples, Emma tried very hard to impress the British society there. There were parties held at Hamilton’s residence, Villa Sessa, and performers and singers were invited to entertain the guests, but often Emma was the centre of attention, performing her Attitudes. Emma’s repertoire included Greek mythology such as Sybil, the muse of dance, characters from classical history such as Sophonisba and the biblical figure Mary Magdalene.

She started to perform just for Sir William Hamilton and the guests, but these sensational performances became very well known and prints and drawings sold across Europe increased Emma’s popularity immensely.

Her rising popularity and marriage to Hamilton gave her access to the highest royalty; she became a friend of Queen Maria Carolina, sister of Marie Antoinette and wife of Ferdinand I of Naples, and Lady Hamilton would became a key player in the courts of Europe. Her celebrity would culminate when she became the lover of Horatio Nelson, whom she met in 1793.

We're crowdfunding to conserve the frame of The Snake in the Grass by 19 November. Please donate today and help us save the frame for generations to come.

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