This captivating female portrait was painted by Francis Cotes at the peak of his career, when he was vying with Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) to become the most sought-after professional portrait painter of his generation. Within two years, however, he was dead, poisoned by a self-administered dose of medicine designed to cure him of gallstones.
In this highly decorative portrait as much attention is paid to the woman's luxurious apparel as her facial features or her relaxed cross-legged pose. Indeed, it is significant that while Cotes was, himself, responsible for painting the face of the portrait and designing the composition, the costume was almost certainly painted by a specialist 'drapery painter' named Peter Toms (1728-77) who collaborated with Cotes on the majority of his portraits.
The dress is a formal sacque or robe à la Francaise in cream and coral pink silk, the bodice decorated with rows of ribbon bows and large, lace sleeve ruffles to cover the elbows; the skirt is covered by white lace-edged, silk gauze apron. This fashion, as the name suggests, derived from France, and became very popular on both sides of the English Channel by the 1760s. Pink was also the most popular colour for women's dress, designed to complement their fashionably pale complexions. Indeed, a virtue is made here of matching the carnation colours in the woman's pale skin with her attire, an effect which is further strengthened by the small spray of pink roses to the left and the creamy foxgloves framed by the trunk of the tree. The notion that the woman is, herself, to be regarded as a product of nature is emphasized by the green, garden bench on which she sits, the foliage that frames her profile and the gentle evening light.
The portrait is signed and dated at the middle right on the tree trunk, 'F.Cotes R.A. pxt | 1768', indicating Cotes's pride at his status as a member of the Royal Academy, which was founded the same year. The picture also bears Cotes's monogram 'FC', suggesting that the full signature may have been an afterthought. The identity of the woman in the portrait is unknown. Traditionally, she is thought to have been the celebrated courtesan, Kitty Fisher, whom she in some ways resembles - especially when compared to Reynolds's profile portrait of Kitty Fisher of 1763-4 (Trustees of the Bowood Collection). However, a possible link between this woman and Kitty Fisher has been discounted on the grounds that Fisher is known to have died in March 1767.
More recently, it has been suggested (Johnson, p.94), that, rather than a courtesan, the woman in this portrait was a member of the aristocratic Yorke family, not least because the picture previously belonged to the Earl of Hardwicke, whose family name was Yorke. It is known that in 1767-8 Cotes was painting Agneta Yorke, the second wife of the Honourable Charles Yorke, second son of the 1st Earl of Hardwicke (private collection). It is possible, therefore, that he may also have painted this portrait at the same time.
Edward Mead Johnson, Francis Cotes. Complete Edition with a Critical Essay and a Catalogue, Oxford 1976, p.94, no.259, fig.77.