Mercier, who was born in Berlin, the son of a Huguenot tapestry worker employed by King Frederick of Prussia, studied under Antoine Pesne and came to London in 1716 on the recommendation of the Court at Hanover. His early patrons in England were mostly aspiring Hanoverian courtiers and in 1729 he was appointed Principal Painter to Frederick, Prince of Wales, as well as to other posts in the Prince's household. However, he was not secure in this post for long and was eventually replaced by John Ellys in 1736. He lived in London (in Covent Garden) until 1739 when he decided to settle in York, where he remained until 1751, when, after living for a while in Portugal, he returned to London. Although in the early part of his career he concentrated on portraiture, from the mid 1730s he turned increasingly to painting 'fancy pictures', of which the present picture is a particularly good example, probably partly because of the weight of competition in the field of portraiture but also because of the commercial possibilities presented by the market for prints of such works.
This picture is one of four known versions of this composition (J. Ingamells, op.cit., nos. 205-207) and is thought to be datable to circa 1745. The portrait in the background of the picture has traditionally been believed to represent Prince Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender) while the young woman was thought to represent his mistress Clementine Walkinshaw (?1726-1802), however, this appears unlikely (see Leo Berry 'Portraits of Clementine Walkinshaw', Notes and Queries, 10 November 1951, pp.491-5). Certainly the model in the composition would appear to be the same model that Mercier used for other of his fancy pictures such as his Pamela, of circa 1743-5, his The Lacemaker, of circa 1745-50, his Girl with Tea Tray of circa 1743-4 (sold in these rooms on 10 June 2003 for £155,000), and The Bible maker, of circa 1743 (J.Ingamells, op.cit., nos. 174, 225, 168 and 232). Ingamells suggests that the subject may be taken from Samuel Richardson's celebrated novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded which Mercier is known to have painted on at least one occasion (Ingamells, op.cit., no. 174). Richardson's novel, published in 1740-1, which described the tribulations of a lady's maid, Pamela Andrews, who is left to the mercy of her rakish employer Mr. B, who makes a number of attempts to seduce her until he finally reforms and marries her, was an international bestseller and inspired other artists including Joseph Highmore who painted a series of twelve scenes from the novel (see Manners and Morals, Hogarth and British Painting 1700-1760, Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1987, pp.156-9, nos. 134-145).
This picture is believed to have been in the collection of the Vanneck family, later Barons Huntingfield, since the eighteenth-century and was presumably acquired either by Sir Joshua Vanneck, 1st Bt., or perhaps by one of his sons Sir Gerard Vanneck, 2nd Bt., or Joshua Vanneck, 1st Lord Huntingfield. The Vanneck family was of Dutch origin and played an important part in the expanding commerce of the City of London. Heveningham in Suffolk, which was built in the early 1780s for Sir Gerard Vanneck, 2nd Bt., was one of the most ambitious neoclassical houses of its time. The Vannecks formed an impressive picture collection which was particularly rich in works by Dutch seventeenth-century artists, reflecting the Vanneck's strong Dutch links. In 1915 Joshua Vanneck, 4th Baron Huntingfield died intestate and the title and property were passed to his nephew William Vanneck, 5th Baron Huntingfield. The house was later sold to the nation in 1970.