This, together with its identically sized companion - a self-portrait (private collection) - is probably Dobson's earliest surviving work. The two works can be seen hanging in Howsham Hall, Yorkshire in a watercolour of about 1830. Their previous history is not known, but the paintings at Howsham were connected with the Cholmley and Strickland families.
Dobson's first wife had died in September 1634. His life is not well documented, and it is not known exactly when in the late 1630s he married his second wife, Judith, who it is presumed is portrayed here. The thickly impastoed surface is characteristic of Dobson's early technique.
This is a very personal image, unexpectedly direct and intimate. Portraits in Britain at this time were generally formal public expressions of status. Dobson seems to have been employed mainly to paint men, for few female portraits by him survive. The present one, however, is handled with considerable delicacy and freshness. The sitter's glance is teasing, even challenging, and could be read as a riposte to the direct, almost confrontational gaze of her husband in his companion portrait. Dobson seems to take an erotic pleasure in contrasting the shiny texture of his wife's cream satin cap - beneath which her hair is confined, although some carefully curled ringlets have escaped - with the fleshy texture of her breasts and their deep cleavage.
Dobson has been described as 'the most distinguished purely British painter before Hogarth' (Waterhouse, p.80). Very little is known about him or his work before 1642 when, during the Civil War, he moved with Charles I's court to Oxford. Charles's portraitist Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) had died the previous year, and Dobson seems to have filled the vaccuum left by his death, although it is not clear whether he ever held an official court post. Between 1642 and 1646, he worked in Oxford, painting both the various courtiers, and also the King himself. One of his most celebrated works is the portrait of Endymion Porter (Tate N01249), thought to date from the earlier part of this period. When Oxford fell to the Parliamentarians in May 1646, Dobson appears to have returned to London.
Dobson was described by his earliest biographer Richard Graham as 'a Gentleman', which indicates that he was of relatively high social status: 'He was a fair, middle-siz'd Man, of a ready Wit, and pleasing Conversation; was somewhat loose, and irregular in his way of Living … and died very poor, at his House in St. Martin's Lane' (John Dryden, The Art of Painting by C. A. du Fresnoy, with a Short Account of the most Eminent Painters … by R[ichard]. G[raham]. Esq, 1716, pp.376-7).
It is not known whether Dobson and his wife had children. Judith evidently survived the Restoration, for John Aubrey later noted that 'Mris Judith Dobson, vidua pictoris [that is, 'the widow of the artist']' had commented that the first point-band (a form of lace collar) in England had been worn by Charles II at his coronation (John Aubrey, 'Brief Lives', chiefly of Contemporaries, ed. Andrew Clark, 1898, vol.II, p.318).
William Dobson 1611-46, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 1983, no.2, reproduced in colour, pl.1
E. K. Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530-1790, 5th edn, New Haven and London 1994, p.80-5
Waldemar Januszczak, 'The first great British painter?', tate, 17, Spring 1999, p.62