Like what Antonio Salieri was to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 18th-century English portraitist George Romney (1734 - 1802) often recedes into the shadows of his better known contemporaries. But Romney was highly skilled.
The study of his genre often focuses on the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Yet for Rienzi, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's home for its European decorative arts collection, Romney's sketches and paintings are an important part of its provenance.
Harris Masterson III took a liking to Romney's oeuvre. Visions of Fancy, on view at Rienzi through Jan. 20, offers a dual look at Romney's processes and aesthetic.
In this audio photo essay, we lounge in a bright room at Rienzi amid the collection with Christine Gervais, associate curator of decorative arts, and Caroline Cole, curatorial assistant, to chat about the back stories that render these pieces irresistible.
Sex, society, popularity contests — it's that juicy.
Opposite: George Romney, Head of a Woman, c. 1782–86, oil on canvas, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Rienzi Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson III
Through the eyes of Gervais and Cole, the exhibition unfolds first with sketches and drawings in a dedicated chamber. A former bedroom at Rienzi was converted into a new showcase area to accommodate Visions of Fancy.
By surveying the sketches, some of which have direct links to completed drawings on view, the artistic process comes into focus.
Also, dispersed through the house are oil portraits that compare and contrast Romney's technique with those working — and competing — in the same genre.
Opposite: George Romney, Sketchbook (view of leaf with figures), 1783, pen and sepia ink, brush and sepia wash and chalk, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Rienzi Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson III in honor of Mr. and Mrs. George R. Brown
This fragile book — like many antique tomes — would otherwise be stored away inside a transparent protective case and propped open to a page that shows a connection to the major themes of the exhibition.
Instead, Romney's sketchbook has been digitized and is presented in an interactive format. Viewers can flip through the pages, study the artist's development and read handwritten notes, shopping lists, reminders and commentary.
Perhaps a predecessor of the iPad? It sure feels that way.
Opposite: George Romney, Sketchbook, 1783, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Rienzi Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson III in honor of Mr. and Mrs. George R. Brown
Each page of the sketchbook captures a single vivid moment in Romney's research and investigation. The digital version may be available online in the future as a resource for curious art lovers, historians, students and curators.
But for now, you can enjoy it only at Rienzi.
Opposite: George Romney, Sketchbook (view of leaf with horse and figure), pen and sepia ink, brush and sepia wash and chalk, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Rienzi Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson III in honor of Mr. and Mrs. George R. Brown
If there was one "femme fatale" (minus the death) who shifted Romney's emotional and artistic journey, it would be Emma Hart. Romney was obsessed with her looks, her elegance, her wit.
Emma Hart had earned quite the reputation as Charles Francis Greville's lover. When he realized that such an open arrangement would hurt his chances of landing a wealthy wife, which he needed to alleviate his troublesome financial situation, Greville had no qualms about tricking her into sleeping with a much older man.
Emma Hart became Lady Hamilton when Greville arranged to ship her off to live as the mistress of Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples — and Emma thought she was going to enjoy a long and well deserved vacation.
He was 60 and she was 26 when they married in 1791, though her love entanglements didn't stop with her nuptials. Her sexcapades continued when she met Lord Nelson two years later.
Aren't we naughty.
Opposite: George Romney, Lady Hamilton, no date, pen and brown ink on paper, the MFAH, the Rienzi Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson III
This early portrait opens a window into the world of Romney as an apprentice. It's thought that William Watson and Millicent Watson (pictured in the following slide) commissioned these miniature vignettes to commemorate their marriage.
Opposite: George Romney, William Watson, late 1750s, oil on canvas, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Rienzi Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson III
Though Gervais admits that this isn't an aesthetically accomplished piece, the set conveys the standard style of 18th-century English portraits. They don't reveal much about the sitters, yet they do suggest that this was a period when Romney was beginning to refine the treatment of rich textiles.
Opposite: George Romney, Millicent Watson, late 1750s, oil on canvas, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Rienzi Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson III
Romney divorced his wife, left his son and daughter and absconded to London with aspirations to raise in the ranks of history painting, the highest form of the metier — mythology, antiquity and historical events — and fame and fortune.
It didn't work out, and he fell back on his training as a portraitist, a genre that was dominated at the time by the more extroverted Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was friends with boldface types, actors and socialites.
Romney's Elizabeth, Lady Blunt looks to the style of the Royal Academy, of which Reynolds was one of the founders and the first president.
Opposite: George Romney, Elizabeth, Lady Blunt, c. 1764, oil on canvas, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Rienzi Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson III
Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough charged more money for a portrait than Romney. His prices opened the possibility of the rising middling class to commission works from popular artists.
Mrs. Andrew Reid was the wife of a London brewer and part of that evolving demographic. Yet what's most interesting is the treatment of the setting. Romney placed solitary women in a landscape, leaning against objects that nod to Classicism.
Opposite: George Romney, Portrait of Mrs. Andrew Reid, c. 1780–88, oil on canvas, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Shown adjacent to Romney's Portrait of Mrs. Andrew Reid is this work by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Mrs. Elisha Matthew is dressed in more contemporary fashions, set against an active backdrop with the playful cocker spaniel, wearing expensive jewelry and a trendy updo.
Though Reynolds was more expensive, he used background painters to complete his works. He would execute the face and the hands. The other details were applied by members of his studio.
In contrast, a Romney is a Romney from top to bottom.
Opposite: Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mrs. Elisha Matthew, 1777, oil on canvas, the MFAH, museum purchase with funds provided by the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund