Lawrence painted this highly romantic image of a young woman in a landscape, circa 1795, soon after he had established his position as a leading portrait painter in London by exhibiting portraits of Queen Charlotte (National Gallery, London), wife of George III, of their daughter Princess Amelia (British Royal Collection) and of the actress Elizabeth Farren (Metropolitan Museum, New York) to great acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1790. He consolidated this success by showing a portrait of George III (St Mary's Hall, Coventry) two years later.
Still only in his mid-twenties when the present portrait was completed, Lawrence was a self-taught artistic prodigy whose confidence as a painter resided in his brilliant draughtsmanship and remarkable facility in handling paint. He usually drew the figure directly onto the canvas, before applying the paint, rarely producing preliminary sketches, which lends his work a vivid, bravura style. An instinctive painter, he infused his creations with life and sensibility by depicting them, as seen here, in the midst of an action or attitude. For all his technical skill, however, he often left his pictures unfinished; at least four hundred and thirty unfinished canvases were listed in his studio after his death. This has led to a tendency for subsequent restorers to over-finish some of his works, as happened with the present canvas. Kenneth Garlick, the cataloguer of Lawrence's work, who knew this picture only from a photograph taken when the painting was still disfigured by unsightly overpaint, at first believed the work to be 'almost certainly originally Lawrence' K. Garlick, loc. cit. 1962-64). He later revised his opinion and, while recognising the overall composition and treatment of the face as that of Lawrence, thought the other elements might have been painted by another hand (K. Garlick, loc. cit., 1989). Presumably the portrait was unknown to Michael Levey, Lawrence's most recent biographer, as it does not appear in his monograph on the artist published in 2005. The picture was sold earlier this year as 'Lawrence and Studio' and was subsequently cleaned. The effect of cleaning and removal of the disfiguring overpaint, especially in the background and drapery, has been revelatory. We can now see the fluid handling so characteristic of Lawrence's style which has led to the picture's conclusive reinstatement as a fully autograph work by the artist.
The picture is typical of Lawrence's dashing romantic creations of the 1790s where figures are often found integrated within evocative landscape settings, suggesting the sitter's empathetic relationship with nature; a fashionable pose recalling Rousseau's teachings on Nature and Sensibility. An illuminating comparison is provided, for example, by Lawrence's 1792 portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, seated full length in a similar attitude, looking up, as if for inspiration, from the woody landscape in which she reposes (fig. 1; Collection of the Duke of Abercorn; K. Garlick, op. cit., 1989, p. 202, no. 370a, pl. 11). The moody, atmospheric treatment of the trees, opening onto a woodland pool on the right, all rapidly brushed in with sudden impastoed highlights, also recalls the treatment of Lawrence's View of Dovedale looking towards Thorpe Cloud and The Source of the River Manifold generally dated circa 1792-95 (private collection; K. Garlick, op. cit., 1989, pp. 294-5, no. 890, plates 7a-b). These comparisons lead to a similar dating of the present picture to circa 1795.
The dramatic pose lends further credence to the traditional identification of the sitter with Sarah Martha Siddons (1775-1803), known as Sally, the eldest daughter of the great tragic actress, Sarah Siddons (1755-1831). Indeed the sitter's pose is reminiscent of Reynolds' famous portrait of Sally's mother, Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1784; The Huntingdon Museum, San Marino, California). Handsome and charming, Lawrence was a great favourite with the Siddons family, as the number of portraits he painted of Mrs Siddons and her daughters, including an oil sketch associated with the present work, clearly illustrates (K. Garlick, op. cit., 1989, pp. 264-5 and Apollo, September 1955, rep. p. 167). An inveterate bachelor, Lawrence nevertheless became engaged to Sally in 1797. Unfortunately he fell for her sister, Maria, too, and then again changed his mind and tried to return to Sally, thereby alienating them both. Maria, on her deathbed, apparently forced her sister to promise never to marry Lawrence, but both sisters died soon after of consumption. This tragic love triangle became a source of endless fascination for Lawrence's subsequent biographers, inspiring an entire book on the subject: An Artist's Love Story, published by Oswald Knapp in 1904 (see M. Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Yale, 2005, p. 308).
The fluid brushwork and stylishness of portraits such as the present picture won Lawrence a European-wide reputation, particularly in France, where he was much admired by younger artists seeking an alternative to the classicism of David and his school. Prud'hon, for example, in his famous portrait of The Empress Josephine (1805; Louvre, Paris) depicts his sitter in exactly the same pose, albeit reversed, listening intently to the sounds of the forest that surrounds her.