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Hugh Douglas Hamilton
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An Irish painter who spent much of his working life in London and Rome before returning to Dublin, Hugh Douglas Hamilton was a sought-after portrait painter who worked in pastels for two decades before turning to oils. He was born around 1739 in Dublin, the son of a wigmaker. He was trained in the Dublin Society Schools under Robert West (d. 1770) for about eight years, beginning around 1750. In 1756 Hamilton won three prizes for best drawings. After he left the Schools in 1756 he set out as a portraitist in Dublin and established a successful practice creating small chalk oval portraits. Hamilton had moved to London by 1764, where he received a prize from the Society of Arts for an historical oil painting, now lost. He exhibited at the Society’s exhibitions, usually portraits, until he left for Rome. Hamilton quickly established a portrait practice, eventually receiving commissions from the royal family and the cream of English aristocracy. In 1779, financially successful, he went to Rome with his wife Mary (ca. 1736-1789) and daughter Harriott. While in Italy, Hamilton enjoyed a very successful career. He painted the portraits of English and Irish aristocrats visiting Italy, English Catholics living in exile in Italy, and other foreigners who had established residency in Italy. Hamilton established friendships with many artists practicing in Rome, most notably the Italian sculptor and painter Antonio Canova (1757-1822) and the English sculptor John Flaxman (1755-1826). Around 1783 Hamilton began painting large-scale subject paintings on historical themes, and also began painting portraits in oils. He lived in Florence from 1783 to 1784, visited Venice in 1784 and Naples in 1788. He collected Old Master prints and paintings, and volumes of engravings illustrating the archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and elsewhere. Hamilton created his self-portrait in pastel for the Queen Regent of Tuscany, Maria Louisa of Spain, who gave it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Hamilton returned to Dublin with his daughter in 1792 (his wife having died while they lived in Rome), where he painted a few large subject paintings, but quickly established a successful portrait practice, receiving such a volume of portrait commissions that he complained about overwork in a letter to his friend Canova. By now most of the portraits were done in oils. When the Society of Artists of Ireland resumed exhibitions in 1800, Hamilton showed his “Cupid and Psyche in the Nuptial Bower” (ca. 1793; Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland) to great acclaim. He was reunited with some of his friends from Rome when he traveled to London in 1802. Hamilton continued exhibiting through1804, after when he painted very little, with his daughter Harriott finishing some of his portraits. He died in his home in Dublin in 1808. (TNB 3/2105) Selected bibliography: Cullen, Fintan. “Hamilton, Hugh Douglas (1740–1808),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2015. Cullen, Fintan. “The Oil Paintings of Hugh Douglas Hamilton,” in The Volume of the Walpole Society, vol. 50 (1984), pp. 165-208. Hodge, Anne, ed. Hugh Douglas Hamilton: A Life in Pictures. Exhibition catalog. Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland, 2008. Strickland, Walter G. “Hugh Douglas Hamilton, Portrait-Painter,” in The Volume of the Walpole Society, Vol. 2 (1912-1913), pp. 99-110.