A forgotten painter’s gift: The eroticism of respectability

George Romney’s living portraits

10 minute read
When you step into Gallery 278 at the Art Museum, the first things you notice are the rosy cheeks of the Willett children. Oh, you might glance around this bright, attractive room with a handful of furniture and candelabra displays from its British period; but once you see those ruddy cheeks, the full, rosy lips and some glorious red-blonde curls— they seize your attention and won't let you go.

They're so gorgeous, in fact, as to have invited at least a century of both imitation and occasional parody. Even if you've never seen this painting, you have seen these children before— or their descendants. They're the models for the big portraits that hung above the living-room mantels of certain suburban homes starting in the 1950s and ''60s, often including the resident collie.

Portrait of Mr. Adye's Children (subtitled "The Willett Children," shown above), painted by George Romney in 1789-90, is a good-sized canvas about four feet wide and five feet tall— a proud statement in size and presumably a nice commission from a peak period for this then-celebrated portraitist. In 1913 it broke all price records for Romney paintings when it hit the $100,000 mark as one of the high points in a standing-room-only auction in New York, capping a remarkably rapid comeback for the work of a painter whose reputation had cycled from fame and celebrity in his lifetime, to complete obscurity after his death, owing in large part to Romney's indifference to self-promotion.

No taste for the art establishment

Romney was raised in the English hinterlands, where his access to other art was somewhat limited. He worked in London, of course—for a while on the same street as his chief rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds— and he did make a trip to Paris when he was 30. During 1773-75, he relocated to Italy and studied extensively there. But he never bothered to exhibit again, and he never attempted to join the Royal Academy of Arts (presided over for years by Reynolds). His goal was to paint historical and literary subjects, and his meeting in 1782 with the beautiful and remarkably expressive Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, eventually led him to use her as model for somewhere between 60 and 100 pictures— a couple of which are also in the Art Museum. But Romney's popularity as a portraitist dominated his output. Fortunately— because the portraits exude a freshness that his historical subjects seem to me to lack.

Unfortunately, avoiding the art establishment of his time made it easier for his work to be neglected. Yet his portraits are noticeably superior to those of his famous contemporary Gainsborough, and at least equal to (if not better than) the esteemed Reynolds. He was certainly a better colorist, technically. Romney's instinct for character and personality also renders his portraits a refreshing change from the surface pictorialism of Impressionism, and the anti-psychology of modern art.

A crucial choice of backdrop

Romney's three Willett children— privileged children, of course— occupy a clearing of calmness and light in the foreground, an oasis filled by their energetic contentment. Just behind them, however, a stand of trees blown by a strong wind keys a darkening scene with red highlights of sunset and a fast-settling night.

It's a crucial choice of backdrop, with the lurid bits of red building up a threatening aura. Romney could have painted a simply pleasant field, neutral and bland. Instead, the melodrama from this ominous background, contrasting with the children's dressy clothing and confident demeanors, might seem almost cartoonish were it not so well executed and so integral to how the painting works.

Romney had something to show about childhood in general, perhaps, or about these particular children for certain. The threatening world is there, but they are protected from it.

The canvas offers a great deal pictorially, and the interplay of the children's contrasting psychologies stakes another claim on us. The three are siblings, but three very different individuals present themselves.

A confident 12-year-old

The oldest girl sits in the middle of the grouping, unmistakably a first-born. She wears a white garden-party dress with a gold sash; her thick brown hair is parted down the center. She looks pointedly off into the distance, to the viewer's left and well beyond her siblings' frames-of-reference; but she is planted firmly in the center of the grouping, holding her younger sister's hand in her lap.

With her thoughtful look, she is gazing off into some future moment— whether simply that evening's planned doings, or life a decade hence, we can only guess. My money's on the latter. This young-woman-to-be is about 12, but her expression tells us that she already sees life's turbulence and will help shepherd her siblings through it to the best of her abilities. And they are considerable, those abilities— you have no doubt about that. You can see them in her determined face.

A girly boy

With all the painterly attention to the trio's clothes and beauties, it's noteworthy that the only boy appears the girliest of the group. His lips and cheeks are the rosiest; his tumbling curls the most eye-catching; and his shiny leather overalls, with their brass buttons, the fussiest. He seems in some ways the least engaged in the moment of the painting— perhaps already thinking of the games he'll play once they get back to the house, if his sisters would ever get going! Or…. maybe he was simply the least interesting to Romney, who seems to have been partial to females. Brother's desires must wait, in any case, because second sister wants to know something right here and now. The younger of the two girls is the most captivating; twisting mightily around in her determination to see— whom? Us. You feel the torsion from her interest, the tug on her clothes. Her white dress, with a big blue-green sash, is tucked under her as she turns to stare with her calm, measuring gaze. Her face is tilted in challenging curiosity.

Eyes that follow you

You're willing to indulge her, but you'd better be careful. Whatever you think you've concealed, she will know, this one! Her eyes follow you everywhere in the room, anywhere you go; and the insistence of her look cuts right through you. It's a riveting look she turns on us; you wonder what became of this girl when she did grow up. What a beautiful painting this is. You can spend plenty of time, and take repeated pleasure, in its presence, its light, its colors, its drama, but above all in that blessed sense of safety.

These Willett children have a magical guardian somewhere. We know, and are reminded by the painter's hints, that it won't always be that way; but, for right now— which in art's alchemy is also forever— the Willett children sit in a potent pool of protection, thanks to the family's adequate wealth, their health, their social standing, their capabilities and intelligence— and also to childhood's relative innocence itself. It's reassuring to see their oasis, but more than that: We also get to enter it ourselves vicariously.

A hint of feminine amusement

Eventually, you move on to the other two Romney paintings in the room. Nearest to the Willett children, on an intersecting wall, is the portrait of Lady Grantham, painted almost a decade earlier, in 1780-81, and donated to the Art Museum by John Howard McFadden in 1928 as part of one of its foundation bequests, its great core of European art. (The Willetts came from the other great bequest of those days, the George Elkins collection.) Unlike the Willett children, Lady Grantham receives only the most perfunctory of backgrounds; the focus is all on Lady Grantham herself, who looks out frankly and with a hint of amusement.

Romney's color mastery, developed in a relatively brief apprenticeship, gets a workout on this canvas. Seated so erectly as to suggest the regal, the lady is resplendent in her white dress, partly covered with an elegant pink gown. The pose is slightly artificial, but that disappears in Romney's lavish treatment.

Every fold and shadow in the clothing receives his full attention. A gold sash encircles Lady Grantham's waist; a brooch gathering fabric at her cleavage draws the eyes to this feminine place for a moment. But her face is the sexiest thing about her, thanks to those intelligent eyes and an air of unusual patience. Her look is open, curious and utterly alluring.

Eros and leadership

There is rosy skin exposed around her throat, down onto her chest. In fact, there is erotic pink coloring all over this canvas, even in Lady Grantham's hand folded on her lap. An intriguing combination of eros and a sense of leadership are expressed in her bearing and looks.

This is a prime example of a great Romney characteristic: So many of his women are impeccably dressed, and eminently respectable, yet their femininity seems ready to explode off the canvas at any moment. A stroll through a gallery of Romney portraits— even in the black-and-white reproductions I saw in one older biography— makes you feel these won't be bound by their nice clothes for long. Romney's is a glorious heterosexuality— the eroticism of respectability.

Deceptively demure

The second woman in Gallery 278 exudes a subtler charm than Lady Grantham. Dorothy Scott, Mrs. Champion de Crespigny, strikes a different and less inviting pose. The painting's brown and green tones make her seem dull after the luscious pink lady. But this one (also from the McFadden bequest) grows on you. It positions Mrs. Crespigny outdoors, with gloves, supporting her chin demurely with one index finger. Her bosom is well covered in a long, dark dress whose lack of detail contrasts notably with the prior portrait. And her very small mouth, in comparison to the huge cloud of chestnut-brown hair teased up atop her head, adds to the sense of emotional distance in this much cooler picture. A gathering storm

As with the Willett children, the background here plays an important role. A landscape like a steeplechase course on an impossibly steep hill is host (again) to a sense of changes looming. A late-summer day may be shifting as violet color— a suggestion of storm— starts to appear in the clouds.

Mrs. Crespigny is starkly lit in this scene, seated in bright light but with heavy shadows falling across her chest, throat and one temple. Her eyes tell us there is more to this woman than the prim and proper aspects first glimpsed; she looks out with large, watchful brown eyes that register a pride of ownership, even control, over the scene in which she is found.

The very restraint of the portrait deepens its psychology. The more you gaze at her, the more some subtle powers and confidence emerge to tell us that this demure Dorothy may, after all, be a match for any storm in her environment, whether climatic or human.

An artist's stages of life

We see the differences among these three canvases. It's easy to forget the differences off the canvas, especially those in the man painting them. Romney, who lived far from his wife and son both geographically and culturally (a subject of gossip at the time), was a man of 46 when he captured Lady Grantham's appeal around 1780. Painting Mrs. Crespigny in 1790 was a man in his mid-50s. His subject was different, obviously— but how much so was Romney himself? And how much is that reflected on these two canvases?

But we don't need to know his history to appreciate the psychologist in this artist. A visit to Gallery 278 will suffice.â—†

To read a response, click here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation