Mitt Romney’s family has been a prominent presence in business, politics and Mormonism, since the mid-19th century, but the first famous Romney rose to prominence in the art world. George Romney, Mr. Romney’s great great great great grandfather, was a renowned British portraitist whose work hangs in museums around the world including the Louvre and the Met.
According to a biography written in 1901 by Rowley Cleeve, George Romney was born in 1734 in Kendal, a small town in England’s Cumbria County to parents who were ”in humble cricumstances.” His father, who made furniture, had him taken out of school when he was 11-years-old because, in Cleeve’s words, “he made very slight progress with his studies, and preferred to spend his time in sketching or in copying the pictures that he found in papers or books.”
After leaving school, George Romney eventually became apprenticed to a local painter named Steele. He met his wife, Mary Abbott, in 1756 after Steele “eloped with a young lady who was one of his pupils.”
“Romney had to assist him in his arrangements. They were difficult and involved a vast amount of trouble and exposure to night air at a time when the youth was far from strong. … Romney fell ill of a fever and was nursed by a domestic servant named Mary Abbott. With this young person the artist fell violently in love and on recovering from his illness married her,” Cleeve wrote.
In 1767, George went to London to further his art career. He stayed there for the next 37 years and during this time, Cleeve says, he didn’t see his wife “with the exception of brief visits in 1767 and 1779.” Mr. Romney also journeyed to France and Italy where he had an audience with Pope Clement XIV who allowed him to “have scaffolding specially erected in the Vatican that he might study the works of Raphael.” He eventually returned to his family “as an invalid” and his wife “received him lovingly and nursed him with great devotion till his death” in 1802.
Check out our slideshow to see examples of George’s paintings.
This self portait painted by George Romney is in the hands of a private collector. We found it on the website of the Romney Society, which is dedicated to his work and "organises a programme for members which includes six or seven lectures a year, trips to galleries and historic houses to view paintings by George Romney, together with several social events." (Photo: Romney-Society.org.uk)
Lady Emma Hamilton
Lady Hamilton, the daughter of a blacksmith, was George Romney's muse. He painted more than 50 portraits of her including many where he placed her in the guise of important historical figures including Joan of Arc. This picture is in the collection of Britain's National Portrait Gallery, which describes Lady Hamilton as having " had a spectacularly successful career as mistress to a succession of older men, finally marrying Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy in Naples." Lady Hamilton's lovers included the English naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson. (Photo: NPG.org.uk)
Sir William Hamilton
George Romney also painted Lady Hamilton's husband, Sir William Hamilton. This picture belongs to the collection of the U.S. National Gallery of Art. (Photo: NGA.gov)
Mrs. Thomas Scott Jackson
Mrs. Jackson was the wife of a director of the Bank of England. Though George Romney earned his livelihood painting portraits of the wealthy, according to the National Gallery, his "lifelong ambition" was "to create monumental scenes from history and literature." Romney was unable to pursue his passion because, a rival ensured his rejection from London's Royal Academy, which the NGA describes as "England's only major avenue for exhibiting or selling such narrative pictures." Romney is said to have once complained, "This cursed portrait-painting! How I am shackled with it!" (Photo: NGA.gov)
Study for the Death of General Wolfe at Quebec
General James Wolfe was killed during the Battle of Quebec in 1759. George Romney painted this picture of his death for a prize offered by the Society of Arts. He initially won the second prize, 50 guineas, but an art world scandal resulted in the prize being taken from him. According to Rowley Cleeve's 1901 biography of Romney: "Later on, however, it was stated that the picture was not painted at all by this unknown artist, but by someone else, and that a fraud had been practiced; and then, when that was disproved, the costume of the picture, which was not the usual one adopted at the time, was objected to; and it was further claimed that the event was not strictly historical, having only so recently happened. the prize was accordingly taken away from Romney; but in consideration of the merits of the work, an ex gratia payment was made to the artist by the Council of the Society of twenty-five guineas." (Photo: ArtFund.org)
Lady Arabella Ward
George Romney apparently spent five years on this portrait between 1783 and 1788. Lady Ward was the wife of an Irish politician, The Honourable Edward Ward. (Photo: NGA.gov)
Portrait of a gentleman, traditionally identified as Mr. Light of Kelvedon
In March, this portrait by George Romney sold for £12,500 ($19,625) at an auction at Christie's in London. (Photo: Christies.com)
Miss Juliana Willoughby
George Romney painted this portrait of the young Juliana Willoughy between 1781 and 1783. It now belongs to the collection of the U.S. National Gallery of Art. According to the National Gallery, "Romney's sure sense of formal values is evident here in the effective balance of figure and landscape." X-Rays revealed Romney had to alter his original composition for this portrait because "Juliana originally wore a small, brimless cap" and "during the two years it took Romney to complete the portrait, Juliana, who was by then almost six years old, had outgrown her mobcap and wore, instead, this broad-brimmed bonnet." (Photo: NGA.gov) Like many of his contemporaries, Romney traveled to Italy, where he spent two years studying the work of Renaissance masters, in particular paintings by Titian and Raphael. The impact of these artists on his work can be seen in the simply expressed folds of Juliana's dress, the case and certainty of his outlines, and the artful balance of broad areas of color. George Romney Miss Juliana Willoughby, 1781-1783 Andrew W. Mellon Collection 1937.1.104 http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/tinfo_f?object=111
Thomas Grove of Ferne, Wiltshire
George Romney painted this portrait in 1788. It now belongs to the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. (Photo: DIA.org)
Mrs. Davies Davenport
George Romney painted this portrait over the two years between 1782 and 1784. (Photo: NGA.gov)