This picture of the young Lady Selina Meade was painted in 1819 during Lawrence’s six-month stay in Vienna, where he had travelled to execute a number of the celebrated full-length portraits to commemorate the allied victors over Napoleon. Commissioned by the Prince Regent, later King George IV, these portraits, which were later hung in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle, secured Lawrence’s fame throughout Europe and his reputation as the finest portraitist of his generation.
The sitter was the second daughter of Richard Meade, 2nd Earl of Clanwilliam (1766-1805), and his wife Caroline, Countess of Thun (1769-1800), daughter of Count Franz Josef Anton von Thun und Hohenstein. Selina’s maternal grandmother, Maria Wilhelmine, presided over a celebrated salon in Vienna and was an important patron of both Mozart and Beethoven. When Selina was orphaned in 1805 she became the ward of her brother Richard Meade, 3rd Earl of Clanwilliam (1795-1879), but while she remained in Vienna to be raised by her aunt, Christina, Princess Lichnowsky, her brother was sent to school in England. Selina was brought up in a highly cultured and musical household, where the young Beethoven regularly performed at the Lichnowsky’s Friday concerts. In 1821, she seems to have been courted by Lord Granville Leveson-Gower, who sat to Lawrence for the superb Van- Dykian full-length portrait now at New Haven (Yale Center for British Art; 1804), but in the same year she married Count Karl Johann Nepomuk Gabriel Clam-Martinic (1792-1840), the Austrian statesman and Field Marshall Lieutenant, with whom she had three children.
Clanwilliam eventually joined the diplomatic service and attended the Congress of Vienna in 1814 before serving as Private Secretary to Lord Castlereagh from 1817 to 1819. Castlereagh and his half-brother, Charles William Stewart, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, both of whom sat to Lawrence (1809-10; and 1812; both London, National Portrait Gallery), were important patrons of the artist. The Clanwilliam and Londonderry families, along with the Abercorns, were part of a nexus of Northern Irish nobility that provided Lawrence with key commissions from the early 1790s. Crucially for the development of Lawrence's career it was the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry who asked the Prince Regent, who had never patronised Lawrence, to sit for the full-length which the artist exhibited in 1815 (Private collection), the success of which helped secure Lawrence the commission for the series of portraits for the Waterloo Chamber. As Lawrence later recognised, it was this ‘mission’ that ‘led to all subsequent distinctions in my profession’ (Williams, op. cit., p. 467).
When Ambassador to the Court of Vienna, to which he was appointed in 1814 at the time of the Congress, Londonderry also played an active role in arranging Lawrence's triumphant continental progress to take likenesses for the Waterloo portraits. Tsar Alexander sat to Lawrence in Londonderry’s presence when at Aix-La Chapelle for the Congress of 1818 and Lawrence stayed with his friend when he arrived in Vienna later that year to finish his portrait of Francis I of Austria and execute other works for the series, including those of Prince Schwarzenberg and Charles, Archduke of Austria. It was presumably through Castlereagh and his half-brother that Lawrence met Clanwilliam and in turn his sister, whose portrait was later described as a ‘cadeau’ from the artist (Letter from The Earl of Clanwilliam to Lawrence, 15 September 1823, RA LAW 4/ 161). Clanwilliam remained a close friend of the artist and was one of the pallbearers at Lawrence’s funeral.
Lawrence’s portrait of Lady Selina is an outstanding example of the artist’s work from this key moment in his career, when his reputation as the leading portraitist of his generation was rapidly gaining momentum. The sitter has the appearance of having just entered the composition from the left, turning her head to meet the gaze of the viewer. The focus is unquestionably on the sensitive treatment of her beguiling face and high-piled black hair, masterfully offset by the gold headband, pearl earrings and strands of pearls. The sensitive and highly finished handling of the head is in deliberate contrast to the virtuoso brushwork employed for her white satin dress and fluidly brushed in background. The local colour used for the posy of flowers in her left hand draws the viewer’s attention to the distant spire of the Stefansdom, the city’s cathedral. As Michael Levey has observed, ‘the handling is buoyant, raising appropriate echoes of Rubens’ (op. cit., p. 216). Indeed, the artist James Northcote compared Lawrence’s progress across Europe in this ambassadorial role with that of the great seventeenth-century Flemish master, when he wrote that he hoped his friend’s ‘high employment … wd. raise the credit of English Art abroad and make it more respected at Home’ (The Diary of Joseph Farington, 4 January 1819, p. 5309).
Writing soon after his arrival in Rome in the spring of 1819 to his friend and patron John Julius Angerstein, Lawrence describes Lady Selina as ‘in beauty and interesting character, one of the most distinguished persons in Vienna’ (cited in Williams, op. cit., p. 168). Lawrence was evidently entranced by the subject of this portrait and made a drawing of Lady Selina, dated April 1819 (Christie’s, London, 14 July 1992, lot 31), before his departure from Vienna for Rome.
Lawrence’s pride in the portrait is confirmed by his decision to exhibit the picture at the Royal Academy in 1820, the year he was elected President, following the death of Benjamin West. Before its arrival in London, the picture travelled with Lawrence to Rome as part of a group of twelve paintings that were shown to Pope Pius VII, whose full-length portrait for the Waterloo Chamber (which marks a unique instance of a British artist being commissioned to paint a Pope for a Protestant monarch) is one of the undisputed masterpieces of European portraiture.
Selina’s portrait received considerable acclaim when shown at the 1820 exhibition and was the subject of a two-part review in the London Magazine. The critic John Scott praised the work for representing ‘the essential look of female beauty’ (London Magazine, June 1820, p. 697). However, in the second part of the review, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, writing under the pen name of ‘Janus Weathercock’, took Lawrence to task for the sitter’s direct gaze, which he evidently considered to be unashamedly brazen: ‘Ha! there’s Lady Selina Meade. very tasty indeed! without the least truth of colour though! The throats of Sir Thomas’s women always look as if they were rubbed over with pearl-paint. Yet, still, nobody else could do them so well’ (London Magazine, June 1820, p. 701).
By 1823, Clanwilliam evidently wished to take the portrait with him to Berlin when he was named minister-plenipotentiary, but in August of that year Lawrence wrote, entreating his friend to ‘let me have a fine line Engraving taken of Lady Selina’s Portrait ... The picture has now been known in Austria, Italy and England. The original, popular wherever she has appeared and Count Clam can have no objection to the publication of the Countess’ portrait knowing that she but shares in this picture with characters of her own purity and station, the most elevated in Europe … I shall have it engraved by the most skilful artist, who will be but too happy to begin it’ (Letter from Lawrence to The Earl of Clanwilliam, 20 August 1823). Eventually, despite Clanwilliam’s misgivings about his sister being ‘in the window of the printshop’, he agreed for the picture to go to the engraver Charles Heath. In a letter to Lawrence (dated 11 June 1824), Leveson-Gower, Selina’s previous suitor, mentions Clanwilliam’s reluctance to part with the picture for this purpose, and remarks of his need to be ‘tranquilized’ over the prospect of his sister appearing on the print market. The print, entitled ‘Selina’ and showing the sitter without the spire of the Stefansdom in the distance (fig. 1), was eventually published in 1828 when it appeared as the frontispiece of the first edition of the literary journal, The Keepsake.
The inclusion of the Stefansdom spire in Lawrence’s original may have been intended to underscore the close ties of the Clanwilliam family with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Lady Selina’s husband, Count Clam-Martinic, was aide-de-camp to Emperor Francis (1768-1835), and her sister Caroline’s husband, Count Paul Szecheny, acted as his Chamberlain. However, the most obvious reason for its inclusion was in homage to Lady Selina’s mother, Caroline, Countess of Thun, for whom, as an Austrian Roman Catholic, the Cathedral would have held a special significance. Though the female members of the Clanwilliam family had Catholic ties, either through birth or marriage, Clanwilliam himself married the protestant Elizabeth, fourth daughter of the 11th Earl of Pembroke by his second wife Catherine Woronzow, daughter of Count Semyon Romanovich Woronzow, Russian Ambassador to the British Court between 1785 and 1800.