The volume of paintings produced by George Romney in the mid-1770s through the mid-1790s, for the most prestigious members of society, surpassed any other painter at the time. Although he was a competitor of artists like Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, Romney charged significantly less for a portrait sitting than his Royal Academy counterparts. Also, by making himself accessible to an emerging moneyed class and avoiding lofty political associations, Romney catered to a larger segment of London society.
Portrait paintings were an announcement of one’s social position, subtly illustrating the wealth and breeding of the subject through details such as clothing, posture, and comportment. Romney painted with a quick, loose brush stroke, and the speed with which he painted was noted by observers. The experience of sitting for a portrait, with Romney’s unstudied spontaneity and speed, personalized the transaction in which his clients were eager to engage. Rienzi’s exhibition, Visions of Fancy, features four finished portraits by Romney, including two major loans to the museum: Portrait of Mrs. Andrew Reid from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and Portrait of Major James Hartley from a private collection.
Despite his success as a portraitist, Romney still aimed to achieve recognition as a history painter. In the 1780s, he was a contributor to Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, an illustrated edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Surviving sketchbooks of Romney’s studies are filled with mythological, biblical, and literary-themed drawings. One such example is a rare sketchbook in Rienzi’s collection featuring Shakespearean subjects, figure studies, studies of expression, and landscape drawings.
Toward the end of his life, Romney slipped into illness and depression, and he died in 1802. His legacy fell largely into obscurity until his work was resurrected, ironically, by late 19th-century American collectors for whom portraits of the period became an emblem of aristocratic taste amongst American aspirants. Romney is now considered one of the most inventive artists of the 18th century.