To a large extent self-taught Romney began taking painting lessons only in 1755, and already in 1762 he moved to London. There he quickly gained wide popularity, which began with the The Death of General Wolfe painting, which received an award from the Royal Academy of Arts (later overshadowed by the famous painting by Benjamin West on the same subject). The years 1773—1775 Romney spent with Ozias Humphrey in Rome and Parma, and upon his return, he opened a studio in Cavendish Square and enjoyed great success again. In 1782, George Romney met Emma Hart, who was to become Lady Hamilton, and she became his muse.
This sullen, taciturn villager, who worked at night on cumbersome “heroic subjects”, had the rare ability to convey the charm of a human face in his portraits with such simplicity and brilliance that Reynolds’ clientèle began to diminish noticeably. Reynolds nicknamed Romney “The Man from Cavendish Square”, not deigning to call him by name.
Romney worked in a manner that was close to Reynolds', who actually monopolized the portrait painting of England in the second half of the 18th century, but Romney’s hand was more vivid and light. He did not set himself the goal of serious analysis of the sitters and creating significant and deep works; in his portraits, the momentary mood of a person is captured, they are filled with a lively, immediate feeling. Yet Romney knew how to flatter his models, so it is not surprising, therefore, that his popularity grew so rapidly, especially among the fairer sex.
However, the descendants reasoned differently. Portrait painting of the 18th century England is marked by two great figures — Gainsborough and Reynolds. Romney, of course, did not possess the power of their talent, but the artist’s indisputable talent, artistry and bright individuality earned him a worthy place in the history of world portrait painting.
Romney received very little education. He was a son of a cabinetmaker, his school success was so insignificant that his father did not hesitate to put an end to this senseless waste of money and time and began to teach his son his craft. Later, Romney’s incredible spelling mistakes often astounded his addressees. His father taught Romney to make violins, and they say that the passion for music took second place in the artist’s life after painting. Romney’s artistic talent manifested itself early: he painted portraits of the apprentices who worked in his father’s workshop with surprising similarities. One of his father’s assistants, who possessed an artistic gift, subscribed to a monthly illustrated magazine, the prints from which young Romney copied. Only at the age of 21 he began to study painting with the visiting portrait painter Christopher Steele, who worked for some time in Paris with Jean-Baptiste van Loo. The apprenticeship lasted four years. Afterwards, Romney worked on his own as a portrait painter for several years, serving Kendal and the nearby counties of Lancaster and York.
Twenty-seven-year-old Romney went to London in search of happiness, leaving behind his wife and two children.
In the middle of the century, there were more than two thousand portrait painters in England, and, of course, most of them worked in London. One had to have a remarkable talent to achieve the popularity and recognition that Romney achieved extremely quickly.
In 1775, Romney rented a large house in Cavendish Square. The most brilliant and happy years of his life passed there. Like Reynolds, he kept a diary, in which he neatly wrote down the names of all his clients. In less than twenty years more than nine thousand “models” visited his workshop, among them were such famous names as the philosopher Edmund Burke, the historian Thurlow, Sarah Siddons and Garrick — the most famous tragic actors, artist, poet and thinker William Blake, Sheridan, the scientist Erasmus Darwin — the grandfather of Charles Darwin, and countless most charming English women. It can be said that the overwhelming majority of the richest, eminent and significant personalities who lived in England in the second half of the 18th century surely came to Romney’s workshop.
Romney completed his somewhat haphazard artistic education in 1773. The same year he made his trip to Italy, as no artist of the 18th century could not count on the title of a professional without such a voyage. His stay in Italy was reflected in the fact that Romney, more than any of his contemporaries, was committed to classicism, manifested in the painter’s love for a balanced composition, smooth rhythm, contours purity, in his passion for local and clear colour combinations. In Parma, the artist was attracted by Correggio, and Rome shocked him with its sculpture. Later, Romney would collect a small collection of magnificent casts of Laocoon, Apollo Belvedere and other sculptures and exhibit them in one of the rooms of his spacious house.
Every single biographer or researcher of Romney’s oeuvre mentions the artist's meeting with his future muse, the famous adventurer Lady Hamilton. This unusual woman, the daughter of a blacksmith, began her brilliant career as a servant in wealthy English houses, passing from hand to hand. She was kidnapped by Charles Greville and lived under his patronage, married his uncle, the famous Sir William Hamilton, participated in all kinds of political conspiracies and intrigues, became famous throughout the world as the beloved of Admiral Nelson and died in exile, in Calais, where she was buried at the expense of a “compassionate English lady”.
When Emma Hart, which was the name of the future Lady Hamilton, first entered the Romney’s workshop, he was about fifty, she was nineteen. She matched to his plastic ideal of female beauty so exactly that she became the main figure in his work for many years. He painted and painted her as Cassandra, Calypso, Magdalene, or simply as herself in a modest everyday dress, calmly sitting in front of the artist, as in the portrait of 1783. Her last half-figure portrait dates back to 1791. That year she married William Hamilton and disappeared from the artist’s life forever, leaving for Naples. Around that period, a decline began in Romney’s work. However, he still created such wonderful works as his self-portrait of 1782. The incompleteness of the portrait, which allows us to focus on a magnificently painted head, only emphasizes the psychologism of the characterization, which is rare for Romney, and the difficult state of mind in which the artist was in the last years of his life.
In 1797, Romney moved to a new house in Hampstead, which he designed himself. He almost abandoned portrait painting and succumbed to the romantic spirit of English painting of the end of the 18th century/ Romney. The artist completely immersed himself in creation of the large and complex compositions on the works by Shakespeare and Milton. He created these contrived compositions with difficulty, and, as it often happens, he appreciated them most of all, considering his portraits to be just a means of earning his living. But those were the artist’s portraits, their lively, immediate charm that made the descendants love Romney’s art. Today, no museum considers its collection complete without Romney’s portraits. The Hermitage in Saint-Petersburg houses several of his works, including the austere and expressive portrait of S. R. Vorontsov, the Russian ambassador to England, and an exquisite portrait of the charming Mrs. Harriet Greer.
Romney’s stay in the new house was not long, because the artist’s chronic illness, which tormented him all his life, worsened. Frequent bouts of depression, fear and irritation in 1799 made Romney return to his hometown to his wife, who had been waiting for him for almost forty years. He arrived completely broken and sick, unable to work or think. She loyally cared for him, and after three years, she buried her husband in the local church cemetery.