Robert Fagan 1745-1816
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Robert Fagan 1745-1816

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Three-quarter-length portrait of Lady Emma Hamilton in her “Attitude” as Neapolitan Peasant


Oil painting on canvas 17 ¼ x 14 inches ( 44.5 x 35.5 cm.) in its giltwood neoclassical frame

Signed, inscribed “Roma” and dated 1793


Previously unpublished


The known oeuvre of the Irish Neoclassical painter Robert Fagan is tiny, making the discovery of this unrecorded picture, signed and dated 1793, a significant event. Equally, the fame of the sitter, Lady Emma Hamilton, makes it one of the key works of Irish Grand Tour art.


Fagan’s adventurous, not to say tempestuous, life, no doubt left little time to paint and only some twenty pictures are known. Nevertheless he has been hailed by Trevelyan as an outstanding artist in the neo-classic tradition with Waterhouse going even further to claim him as the ‘only British portrait painter who deliberately adopted a neo-classic style.' However, in addition to stylistic modernity and embrace of international neo-classicism, Fagan is one of the most interesting and innovative of all Irish artists. A catholic and fierce republican, he naturally alienated many of British Grand Tourists, even refusing to show his pictures to Lady Knight on the grounds that they were ‘enemies of the revolution’. Fagan’s Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia, described as his ‘patriotic masterpiece’ is replete with Irish symbolism and can be interpreted as a lament for his native country’s loss of independence after the Act of Union.  The quality of his work, his glamorous life and tragic death certainly justify Professor Crookshank and the Knight of Glin’s assessment of Fagan as ‘one of the most dramatic characters associated with Irish painting.’


Fagan would have come directly into William Hamilton’s ambit through his archaeological activities. From 1793, the exact date of the present portrait, he was excavating at Campo Iemini in the company of Prince Augustus Frederick, later Duke of Sussex. The prince, sixth son of George III had been put under the care of Hamilton, who reported to Queen Charlotte on his progress and inappropriate liaisons.

More on Fagan and William Hamilton’s archaeological interests

Fagan had portrayed Lady Hamilton as a bacchante in work now in a private collection 1 Here he shows her in a calmer pose. Following Fagan’s usual pattern he gives the place as well as the date of the execution of the picture. It is signed Roma 1793. It is accordingly an early work following the portraits of Lady Clifford (1791) and Sir Andrew Corbet and his wife (1792) (both private collections). Fagan was based in Rome from 1793 to 1797, however, up to sometime in 1793 Fagan had resided in Naples where no doubt he sketched Lady Hamilton performing one of her attitudes, completing the work later in the year and signing it from Rome.

Most of Emma’s attitudes were taken from classical antiquity. One contemporary describes her ‘with the assistance of one or two Etruscan vases and an urn’ she would become ‘a Sibyl, then a Fury, A Niobe, a Sophonisba, a Bacchante drinking wine’.  This last posture was how she was portrayed in the (undated) picture by Fagan noted above. Fagan uses a tripod a Greek oinochoe, no doubt from Sir William’s own collection as attributes to define Emma as Bacchante.

In the newly discovered work considered here, Emma, with a knowing smile on here face, takes on a more humble, if equally seductive part. The same source noted how Emma would drop her classical guises to take on the character of a Neapolitan peasant woman dancing a tarantella with castanets. Emma is shown here in the brightly coloured costumes of the south of Italy about to embark on her dance. Fagan’s romanticisation of the life of the Neapolitan peasantry would have attuned well with the Neapolitan court. Ferdinand and Maria Carolina at Naples liked to withdraw from the formality of court life and affect a bucolic existence as humble peasants, perhaps inspired by the example of Marie Antoinette’s hameau at Versailles (the French queen was of course Maria Carolina’s sister).

The royal family were painted by Philip Hackert in peasant costumes ‘indulging in the fantasy that they are helping to harvest the crops’ (Museo de San Martino, Naples). For Sir William Hamilton and indeed for Fagan, there would not have been a marked distinction between Emma’s classical and more modern attitudes. It was customary to see in the life and customs of the Neapolitan peasantry survivals from the classical past. ‘the local customs of the inhabitants were unique and certainly picturesque…Local games such as mora, dances such as the tarantella, and religious customs all seemed to have reflections in objects and paintings discovered in the excavations, and thus appeared to have ancient roots.  These were depicted by local and visiting artists such as David Allan and Pietro Fabris. A direct comparison may be made with Allan 1776 picture A Procidian Girl (Duke of Hamilton). However, compared to Allan’s attempt at empirical observation and the woman’s rather generic features, in Fagan’s picture the element of acting, or role play is clear. He captures Lady Hamitlon’s flirtatiousness in a striking image.