Robert Fagan married the seventeen-year-old Anna Maria Aloisia Rosa Ferri on 12 April 1790. The present portrait, depicting Maria in a striking yellow dress with a blue fur-lined cloak and bonnet, may have been painted around the time of their marriage. If that is so, it is among Fagan's earliest known portraits.
Robert Fagan's life was varied, colourful, and ultimately tragic. He was born in London in 1761, the son of a prosperous Irish baker. In March 1781, aged twenty, Fagan enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy Schools. Using his inheritance, he left England for the continent, travelling to Italy and France, before settling in Rome in 1784. Although he worked as a portrait painter, Fagan was also active in art dealing, archaeology and diplomacy. Habitually dissolute and spendthrift, Fagan married Anna Maria Ferri, the daughter of an employee of a Roman cardinal, at a time when he was, according to one fellow artist, 'very extravagant & embarrassed [in] his circumstances' (Ingamells, p.346).
After their marriage Fagan and his wife set up home in the Via Babuino, Rome, where their daughter, Esther Maria, or Estina, was born in November 1792. However, the marriage was evidently unhappy and Fagan himself was renowned in Rome for his ill-mannered behaviour. By now Fagan was working as a portraitist in the neo-classical manner, principally for Grand Tourists. He also set up in business as dealer in art and antiquities, illegally exporting large numbers of Old Masters, and building up his own personal collection.
Although Fagan's business opportunities were initially enhanced by the French occupation of Rome in 1798, which compelled Italian families to sell their art treasures, it also imposed immense strain upon his family life, indirectly causing the ill health of his wife, who died in August 1800. Six weeks later Fagan remarried, again to a young Italian woman, Maria Flanjani, daughter of the Pope's physician. He included her, with exposed breasts, in an unusual self-portrait of c.1803 (private collection, Ireland). With his second wife Fagan had two further children. In 1809, by which time he was residing in Palermo, he was appointed consul general for Sicily and Malta. Over the next few years increasing financial problems dogged Fagan. In 1815 he returned briefly to England, moving back to Rome the following year. He committed suicide on 26 August 1816.
Anna Maria Ferri's daughter, Estina, who in August 1809 married William Baker, heir to the estate of Bayfordbury, Hertfordshire, inherited the present portrait. The portrait remained in the possession of their descendants until it was sold at auction in 1947.
Raleigh Trevelyan, 'Robert Fagan, an Irish Bohemian in Italy', Apollo, October 1972, pp.298-303, reproduced as plate 2
John Ingamells, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701-1800, compiled from the Brinsley Ford Archive, New Haven and London 1997, p.346