"Portrait of Angelica Catalani in costume as Semiramide from Portogallo's opera, 'La Semiramide'. By James Lonsdale. Oil on canvas, unsigned, c.1808." [2003.939], Lonsdale, James
Portrait of Angelica Catalani in costume as Semiramide from Portogallo's opera, 'La Semiramide'. By James Lonsdale. Oil on canvas, unsigned, c.1808.
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Object Type
Presented by Mr Alban Jeynes FRAM and Mr Charles Riddel Williams, after February 1959.
Portrait of Angelica Catalani in costume, dressed in royal robes trimmed with ermine and wearing a diadem on her head. In a dramatic role, that of Semiramide (from Marco Antonio Portogallo's opera 'La Semiramide'), she is standing next to an iron gate, possibly a graveyard or a tomb, and appears to be sprinkling something - there are small areas of flamingo-coloured paint on the canvas. A dark character stands in the rear shadows, behind and to her left.

Catalani is depicted as three-quarter length, with her arms raised in a theatrical gesture, looking upwards and to the right. She has olive skin-tones and an Italianate appearance, with a thick plait in her hair, and she wears a diadem. By James Lonsdale, oil on canvas, unsigned. Undated, but c.1808.
Name Role
Lonsdale, James artist
Date made
On initial investigation of the painting in the 1990s, Richard Bonynge, in a letter of 4th November 1996, noted that 'this lovely portrait is a bit of a puzzle. The only two singers I can think of are Adelaide Kemble and Josephine de Méric - both ladies sang Norma and Semiramide and the costume could be either'. Margie Christian from Christie's noted on 2 November 1995 ' ... possibly in the role of Semiramide or Medea'. John Rosselli on 9th September 1995 commented 'Thanks for letting me see the photograph of this remarkable painting. It's rather puzzling ... the face suggests no-one so much as Erminia Frezzolini, whose career was at its peak in the 1840s. She sang in London and might have been painted then. But there are many other singers of the early 19th-century whose portraits I haven't seen, so that's far from conclusive. The really puzzling question is: what part is she singing? The ermine mantle and diadem suggest a queen ... an invocation to a pagan deity ... I can't think of a suitable prayer scene in any of the well-known operas featuring pagan queens, eg Semiramide (one of Frezzolini's best-known parts; I Lombardi had a famous prayer, but that was to the Virgin Mary'. Patric Schmid from Opera Rara, writing on 14th September 1995, noted:that he would go along with John Rosselli and say Erminia Frezzolini as a good possibility. I am sure she's not Pasta ... there is also the possibility that she is one of the lesser-known English divas (or ladies that may have ended up in England) like Adelaide Kemble, a famous Norma, for example. Julian Budden, in a telephone conversation, thought she may have been Giuditta Pasta.

An Academy inventory of 1980 by Philips listed the painting as by Romney; more recently, another valuer had appended a note which suggested the artist as being James Northcote. This was checked by JS against Jacob Simon's catalogue raisonée on Northcote (Walpole Society, 1996), and the author himself had rejected this idea.

In April 2006, just after the painting had been restored (it had probably arrived at the Academy already damaged), it transpired that it was formerly in the collection of the Garrick Club, it having been presented to the Club by the artist's (James Lonsdale's) son in 1854. It was purchased for £5 by Academy professor Alban Jeynes FRAM and Charles Riddel Williams, who presented it to the Academy some time after February 1959.

The 1936 Garrick Club catalogue of pictures records the painting as:

'No 396: Angelica Catalani. Painting by James Lonsdale: 49 x 39, canvas. Three-quarter length, standing, nearly in profile to right, looking up, hands raised; a gold circlet on her head, dark hair plaited and wrapped round head, white dress with a little red embroidery, crimson ermine-lined mantle thrown back; dark brown interior background. Presented in 1854 by the artist's son.' (p119)

The Garrick's catalogue also records the following note that this was 'probably the portrait of her exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1809 as 'La Didone abandonanata'. Another by Lonsdale was sold at Sotheby's, March 2, 1932. (p119) The RA painting and 'La Didone' appear to be one and the same item - the Sotheby & Co sale catalogue for Wednesday 2nd March 1932 lists the portrait by J. Lonsdale as: No 64. 'Portrait of Madame Catalani in the character of 'La Didone abandonnata' etc, half-length, in white dress, 29 1/2 x 24 1/2 inches.' (p10) (Sale of Drawings and Pictures by Old Masters of the Italian and Dutch Schools, Portraits of the English School, Coaching and Sporting Subjects, Water-Colour Drawings, Modern Pictures of the English and Norwegian Schools). This does not refer to this particular three-quarter length painting.

See the article by Rachel Cowgill on Angelica Catalani in which both this painting and Catalani's role in the opera are discussed, in particular also relating to the use of her shawls and with reference to Emma Hamilton, in Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss (eds),The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century: 1800-1920, OUP, 2012.
canvas oil
Type Length Width Height Diameter Unit (Length)
image 1000 1230 millimetres
image and frame 1300 1570 millimetres
Accession No.
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Portrait of Angelica Catalani in costume as Semiramide from Portogallo's opera of the same name (image/jpeg) Portrait of an unidentified early 19th-century female singe in operatic costume.  Oil on canvas, unsigned. (image/jpeg)