Emily Mary Osborn was a genre painter who specialised in the theme of the victimised and distressed young woman. Nameless and Friendless is her most famous work and shows an impoverished young female artist, accompanied by her younger brother, attempting to sell one of her pictures to a dealer. The picture contains subtle references to the plight of the single woman seeking employment: she stands nervously pulling a loop of string with downcast eyes as the dealer disdainfully judges her work. She is also shown to be as much an object of scrutiny as her painting, as two men behind her compare her to the bare-legged ballet dancer in the print they examine. In the context of contemporary campaigns for female education and employment, the painting suggests that the woman has been forced by circumstance to exploit the meagre 'feminine' skills she acquired in girlhood to pursue the unfeminine activity of earning her own living in a hostile urban environment.
Lindsay Errington has suggested that the situation represented in the painting possibly relates to Mary Brunton’s novel Self-Control of 1810 which was republished during the 1850s. This describes the struggles of a self-motivated female artist to sell her pictures in order to help save her father from financial ruin (National Gallery of Scotland, no.13).
The difficulties experienced by women in exhibiting and selling their works led to the formation of the Society of Female Artists in 1857, the year Nameless and Friendless was first exhibited at the Royal Academy. Emily Mary Osborn was a member of this group and one of the artists associated with Barbara Bodichon's Langham Place circle and campaign for women's rights. Despite the subject matter of this work, Osborn went on to develop a successful career: Nameless and Friendless was exhibited at the International Exhibition in 1862 (765), and Queen Victoria purchased her painting The Governess after it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860.
James Dafforne, ‘British Artists: Their Style and Character. No. LXXV – Emily Mary Osborn’, Art Journal , n.s.3,1864, pp.261–3.
Sunshine and Shadow: The David Scott Collection of Victorian Paintings, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh 1991, no.13, p.24.
Deborah Cherry, Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists, London 1993.