Gavin Hamilton (artist)  

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Gavin Hamilton (1723, Lanarkshire – 4 January 1798, Rome) was a Scottish neoclassical history painter, who is more widely remembered for his hunts for antiquities in the neighborhood of Rome. These roles in combination made him an arbiter of neoclassical taste.

Hamilton came from the prominent family for which the town of Hamilton, South Lanarkshire was named, which was headed by the dukes of Hamilton. Hamilton was educated at the University of Glasgow and studied in Rome in the 1740s, under the master Agostino Masucci. After a brief return home, he did some portrait painting in London, and returned to Rome in 1756 where he lived for the rest of his life.

Aside from a few portraits of friends, the Hamilton family and British people on the Grand Tour, most of his paintings, many of which are very large, were of classical Greek and Roman subjects. His most famous is a cycle of six paintings from Homer's Iliad, which, as engraved by Domenico Cunego, were disseminated widely and were enormously influential. Also influential was Hamilton's Death of Lucretia (1760s), also known as the Oath of Brutus, which inaugurated a series of "oath paintings" that include Jacques-Louis David's famous Oath of the Horatii (1784).

He painted the altar piece of the Scottish national church in Rome, Sant'Andrea degli Scozzesi, depicting the Martyrdom of St Andrew.

As an art dealer and archaeologist he undertook excavations at Hadrian's Villa in 1769-1771, at first occasioned by the need of marble for his sculptor to restore sculptures. His excavators reopened the outlet of a low-lying swampy area and "after some weeks' work underground by lamp-light and up to the knees in muddy water" retrieved sculptures from the muck where they had been thrown with timber when the sacred grove was levelled (Smith 1901:308). From 1771 Hamilton excavated other sites in the environs of Rome: Cardinal Flavio Chigi's Tor Colombaro, 1771-72, Albano, 1772, Monte Cagnolo 1772-73, Ostia 1774-75, the Villa Fonseca on the Caelian Hill in Rome, "Roma Vecchia" (the Villa dei Quintili), ca 1775 Castel di Guido and Gabii. In an age when restorations to Roman sculptures were broadly conceived and the refinishing of whole surfaces was still common practice, Hamilton has maintained a reputation for a honest man who did not tamper untowardly with the sculptures that passed through his hands. Many of the works of art recovered were sold to Hamilton's British clients, most notably to Charles Townley, to whom Hamilton wrote "the most valuable acquisition a man of refined taste can make, is a piece of fine Greek Sculpture", (Quoted Irwin 1962:88.) and to William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne at Shelburne, later Lansdowne House, London. The Warwick Vase, which Hamilton discovered at Hadrian's Villa in 1771, he sold to Sir William Hamilton, the connoisseur and British envoy at Naples.

Gavin Hamilton worked closely with Giovanni Battista Piranesi. He was an early advisor of the young sculptor Antonio Canova, whom Hamilton met at a dinner party in December 1779 on Canova's first visit to Rome, and whom he advised to put aside his early, Rococo manner and concentrate on conflating the study of nature with the best of antiquities and a narrow range of classic modern sculptors.

In 1785 he bought the version now at the National Gallery, London, of Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks and sent it to London for sale.

Gavin Hamilton's success, in what were already marginally shady undertakings, for the pope, in addition to claiming one-third of all excavated works, had the right to forbid export of outstanding treasures, lay in his generous offerings to the Museo Pio-Clementina, and his generosity in buying excavating rights from landowners.

See also

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