Thursday, May 8, 2008

Cool Paintings that Make me Sad Because They No Longer Exist

Joshua Reynolds, Douglas, 8th Duke Hamilton, and Elizabeth, Duchess of Hamilton 1779

This could very well be my favorite Reynolds painting if it were not for the fact that it really does not exist any more. Tragic is really an understatement in describe this loss, as you can probably judge from this last remaining image of the work. There is a real tenderness between the young couple that which many Enlightenment artists strove to show in their work, but their efforts are dwarfed by this example. The content look of the couple, merged with the simple display of affection the Duchess shows by holding her husband's collar in her gloved hand is touching.

The Duke of Hamilton fell in love with Elizabeth Anne Burrell and married her a year before this painting was finished. Unfortunately, his mother disapproved of the match which ultimately led to their divorce. Hamilton died without an heir in 1799.


  1. The dowager duchess died in 1790. The divorce, which Elizabeth asked for, was in 1794. The problem was not the dowager's disapproval, but a 16-year marriage in which no heirs were produced.

    Directly after the divorce the duke fathered a daughter (b 1796) by a twice-married actress, proving he wasn't the problem. But he died before he could marry a more suitable (read 20 years younger and fertile) woman and have a legitimate male heir.

    To her credit, Elizabeth waited till the duke died in Aug 1799, mourned him for 1 year, then married again in Aug 1800. Again, she had no children. Her 2nd spouse was the 1st Marquess of Exeter. She was his 3rd wife. He died in 1804. She remained unmarried and died in 1837.

    I suspect the Hamiltons divorced not because they really wanted to but simply because he was getting older (over 40) and they both understood that he needed a legitimate heir which she (only 1 year his junior) was never going to be able to provide.

    And given the outcome, the sacrifice of their love on the altar of succession was all for naught. Truly tragic, on so many levels.

  2. If it doesn't exist, how do you have this picture? Was it destroyed recently?

  3. Yes, destroyed after they were able to document its existence. There's a Courbet or two with the same story. So sad!

  4. I loved the initial story. Then I decided to look up the story a bit more (am interested in the Burrell family and similar families of the late 18th century that married into the aristocracy). The 8th Duke was a bit of a handful as a boy and young man (his bearleader was Dr John Moore, father of Sir John Moore of Corunna fame). He married impulsively, was happy at first and his wife was truly admirable. Unfortunately, he fell into dissipation (to quote Andrew Steptoe), and had at least two notable affairs one with the Countess of Eglinton (sister of the notorious Frances Countess of Jersey), and another with an actress. Both produced children, but the former resulted in the Eglinton divorce of 1788. Yet Duchess Betsy didn't divorce her husband initially but only in 1784. There is a story hiding there. I've updated the Wikipedia entry for this duke, by the way.

  5. So much dissipation! Thank you for the info, I bet their rocky marriage would make a great miniseries.