Thomas Hudson was one of the foremost portrait painters in England in the mid-18th century. His work combines the high-keyed colors of the Rococo with poses derived from such artists as van Dyck, Kneller and his own teacher and father-in-law, Jonathan Richardson. He painted at least 400 portraits, about 80 of which were engraved. Among his many pupils were Joseph Wright of Derby, John Hamilton Mortimer and Joshua Reynolds. Hudson was a member of the group of artists including Hogarth, Allan Ramsay, Francis Hayman and the sculptor John Michael Rysbrack who met at Old Slaughter's Coffee House in the mid-1740s and who promoted Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital, of which they were governors, as the first public exhibiting space for artists in London.
The earliest record of Hudson as a painter is in the accounts of the Courtenay family of Devon, where he is described in 1728 as 'Mr. Hudson ye Limner'. Among his earliest recorded works were three portraits of the Courtenays (untraced) and a St Mary Magdalene (possibly a portrait of his wife) known from a mezzotint by John Faber. All date from the late 1720s. Until 1740, the year Richardson retired, Hudson divided his time between London and the West Country, including the fashionable spa town of Bath. His early portraits, notably that of the marine painter Samuel Scott (National Portrait Gallery, London) and the series of aldermen painted for the Guildhall at Barnstaple, Devon, in 1739-40 (Barnstaple Town Council), are solidly painted and traditional in format.
The present portrait, of an as yet unidentified female sitter, exemplifies Hudson's work from the most successful part of his career. By the 1740s Hudson had established himself as one of the leading London portrait painters, developing the range of portrait types that he repeated with slight variations for the rest of his career. He followed the common practice of delegating much of the finishing of his pictures to drapery painters. George Vertue first mentioned his collaboration with the notable drapery painter Joseph van Aken in 1743, adding that, since van Aken worked for several portrait painters, it is very difficult to know one hand from another ('The Note-books of George Vertue', in The Walpole Society, xxii (1934), p. 117). Hudson's technique for painting faces, in which brushstrokes follow the direction of the facial features, remains the best guide to making attributions: he used horizontal strokes for eyes, forehead, mouth and chin; vertical for nose, cheeks and edge of the face; and angular for the area of the lower cheek and near the bridge of the nose.
Hudson's style in the 1740s is well illustrated by the formal full-length portrait of Theodore Jacobsen (1746; Foundling Hospital, London) with its nonchalant cross-legged pose and mask-like features. Less typical is the Rembrandtesque bust portrait of Charles Erskine (c. 1747-8; Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh). Lady Lucy Manners (c. 1742-5; private collection), where pose and costume are derived from a portrait of Rubens' wife, thought in the 18th century to be by van Dyck, is a good example of van Aken's contribution to Hudson's output.
Hudson maintained his position as a fashionable portrait painter despite van Aken's death in 1749 and continued to rely on drapery assistants. Travels to France, Holland and Flanders in 1748 (with Hogarth, Hayman, van Aken and Henry Cheere) and to Italy in 1752 (with Roubiliac) may have influenced his work. Hudson painted several group portraits; the earliest of these, Benn's Club of Aldermen (1752; Goldsmiths Company, London), was perhaps inspired by Dutch models. In addition, his face-painting technique in such portraits as George Parker, 2nd Earl of Macclesfield (c. 1753-4; Royal Society, London) and in the magnificent seated full-length portrait of George Frederick Handel in old age (1756; National Portrait Gallery, London) became looser and more feathery, possibly influenced by works he had seen during his travels.
The return from Italy in 1752 of Hudson's former pupil Joshua Reynolds marked the beginning of an increasing rivalry between the two painters, as Reynolds began to receive commissions from Hudson's former patrons. Horace Walpole dated Hudson's decline in fashionable esteem to the period after he finished the most ambitious of his group portraits, the Family of Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough (c. 1755; Blenheim Palace). Hudson, who was involved in early attempts to found a royal academy of the arts, exhibited with the Society of Artists in 1761 (its first exhibition) and again in 1766, by which time he had virtually retired to his villa at Twickenham.
Throughout his career Hudson was an avid collector of Old Master drawings and paintings as well as works by his contemporaries. Only two of the more than 200 paintings he owned have been identified, but many of the drawings, which by the time he retired made his collection probably the finest in London, can be identified by his collectors mark, 'TH', stamped on them. The collection was dispersed in two sales after Hudson's death in 1779 and at a third sale after the death of his wife in 1785.