I must confess that I am interested in Richard Samuel’s book. ‘Portrait as Muses in the Temple of Apollo’ is purely selfish, which makes me fixate on one inspiring woman more than anyone else in this incredible picture. The figure I am alluding to is the social reformer, hostess and critic Elizabeth Montagu, who sits with her hand on her chin.
Frankly, I cannot add or write anything new that has not already been said about Montagu. Her amazing life speaks for itself and has often been the subject of many university dissertations, especially her correspondence and letters with British Enlightenment circles. Many British libraries hold some of the most important letters she wrote. The Huntington Library in California, USA also has a large collection of her letters.
Elizabeth Montagu’s enthusiasm for English and Scottish literature was unsurpassed. She was a “famous hostess” and one of the founders The Blue Stockings Society. It was a privileged women’s literary discussion group that often also invited many leading and educated men to participate. Interestingly, the bluestock society was revolutionary for its time. Montague and her female colleagues were breaking down old stereotypes about a woman’s place in the home through this literary group. In many ways, the Montagu Society was a women’s rights group. It was also a support network whose members supported each other in reading, drawing and writing.
By Richard Samuel “Portrait as Muses in the Temple of Apollo” (1778), Elizabeth Montagu is interestingly surrounded by many of her contemporaries, including playwright and writer Elizabeth Griffith (to her left), historian Catherine Macaulay (to her right), and singer Elizabeth Ann Sheridan in the center, holding a lyre. At the far end, the artist Angelique Kaufmann sits at an easel, perhaps painting a portrait of Montagu, surrounded by four of her colleagues. Other writers standing from left to right include Elizabeth Carter and Anna Barbauld, Hannah Moore and Charlotte Lennox.
Why the portrait painter Richard Samuel made Montague the center of attention by resting his hand on his chin (in pose) probably had something to do with her role as a leader in society. Everyone seems to be in awe of her presence. Of course, this does not detract from the special role that the other eight women around her played in the bluestocking circles. Interestingly, these leading women of 18th century British society are portrayed as the nine muses of Greek mythology. It is said that Samuel’s striking portraiture was an attempt to capitalize on the interest in the Muses in his day. This certainly helped him move up the career ladder when, in 1779, the Royal Academy of Arts became assistant secretary, a post Samuel held until his death in 1786.