Berthe Schlesinger was a strikingly beautiful American woman and reputedly a muse for the couturier Charles Frederick Worth. Lillie Langtry wrote in her autobiography that she 'had a lovely face, which I have never forgotten - fair and delicate, framed in beautiful golden hair, swept high in classic coils.' Born in 1852, she was the daughter of the Swiss-American naturalist Louis-François de Pourtalès, custodian of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Her husband, Sebastian Schlesinger, was a composer known especially for his songs. Some fifteen years her senior, he came from a Jewish family who had emigrated to the United States from Germany when he was a boy, settling in Boston. Berthe and Sebastian lived in Boston at 79 Marlborough Street, and Sebastian served as the city's German consul. The couple moved in high social and artistic circles on both sides of the Atlantic, and around the time of the portrait Berthe was on close terms with Millais and his wife Effie, who mentions her frequently in her diaries. Unhappy in her marriage, Berthe eventually fled Boston with her two daughters and took refuge with her brother, Louis de Pourtalès, who lived near Colorado Springs. She and Schlesinger divorced, and in 1889 she married her cousin James de Pourtalès. She died at Glumbowitz, her second husband's family estate in Silesia (then Prussia), in 1905.
Millais exhibited the portrait at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1876, where it was well reviewed. Writing in the Athenaeum, the critic F. G. Stephens described Mrs Schlesinger's face as 'marked by a dreamy pathos and instinct with beautiful sentiment, exquisitely rendered.' The work was included in the Millais retrospective at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886 and the Millais memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1898, but appears never to have been shown in public since then.
We are grateful to Dr Malcolm Warner for providing this catalogue entry.