I must confess my interest in Richard Samuel’s ‘Portrait in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo’ is purely a selfish one which finds me fixated on one inspirational woman above all others in this incredible painting. The figure I allude to is social reformer, hostess and critic Elizabeth Montagu who sits with her hand on her chin.
There is honestly nothing new I can add or write about that hasn’t already been said about Montagu. Her amazing life speaks for itself and has often been the subject of many University dissertations, particularly her correspondence and letters with British Enlightenment coteries. Many British libraries hold some of the most important letters that she wrote. The Huntington Library, in California, USA also has a sizeable collection of her letters.
Elizabeth Montague’s enthusiasm for English and Scottish literature was second to none. She was a ‘celebrated hostess’ and founding member of the Bluestocking Society. It was a literary discussion group of privileged women that often also invited many leading and otherwise educated men to participate. Interestingly, the bluestock society was revolutionary for its time. The old stereotypes that a woman’s place was in the home were being broken down by Montague and her fellow female companions through this literary group. In many ways Montague’s society was an advocacy group for the amelioration of women. It was also a support network where members supported each other through reading, artwork and writing.
In Richard Samuel’s ‘Portrait in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo’ (1778), Elizabeth Montagu is interestingly surrounded by many of her contemporaries which includes playwright and novelist Elizabeth Griffith (to her left), the historian Catharine Macaulay (to her right) and the singer Elizabeth Ann Sheridan in the centre, holding a lyre. On the far side sitting at an easel is artist Angelica Kauffman, who is possibly painting Montagu’s portrait with her four colleagues around her. Others include standing from left to right, the writers Elizabeth Carter and Anna Barbauld, Hannah Moore and Charlotte Lennox.
Why portrait painter Richard Samuel’s made Montagu a focal point with her hand on her chin (in a posed positioned) likely had something to do with her role as a society leader. Everyone is seemingly in awe of her presence. Of course it doesn’t diminish the special role the other eight women around her played in bluestocking circles. Interestingly these leading women of 18th century British society are portrayed as the nine muses of Greek Mythology. It is said, Samuel’s striking portrait painting was an attempt to capitalise on the interest in the Muses during his day. It certainly helped advance his career with the Royal Academy of Arts becoming assistant secretary in 1779, a post Samuel’s held until his death in 1786.
Fascinating stuff. Thank you Robert.