The sitter is depicted at three-quarter-length, seated in a hilly landscape under a cloudy evening sky, with a sheep at her knees. In her left hand is a pole with a curved metal end. This implement, known as a 'spud', was used by shepherds to control their sheep. Following the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy to the British throne in 1660, it became a fashion for ladies, particularly those of the court - and including Charles II's queen, Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) - to be portrayed in the role of a shepherdess. This explains the outdoor setting, the sheep and the spud. The illusion of pastoral simplicity is enhanced by the pink rose in the sitter's smooth, blonde hair and by the absence of jewellery, except for the tiny gold loops in her ear and a jewelled armlet in imitation antique style. Nevertheless, her apparently simple gown is made of expensive cream, or 'oyster-coloured', satin. Soest has painted its considerable expanse in what was effectively his trademark manner: it shimmers icily, with a metallic gleam, and almost takes on a life of its own. Also characteristic of Soest is the rich, puffy handling of the sitter's flesh.
The identity of the sitter is not known. The work was briefly said to be a portrait of Arabella Churchill (for whom, see Tate T06455). When the National Portrait Gallery acquired it in 1880, the subject was re-identified as Jane Middleton (1645-92), mistress not only of Charles II but also of his brother the Duke of York and of other court figures. Because of the tilt of the sitter's head, however, it is not easy to see her features, and it has also been suggested that it may be intended primarily as an early 'fancy picture', or genre painting.
The features - or what can be seen of them - do not closely resemble those in other established portraits of 'the Middleton', as the Comte de Grammont called her, who was 'handsomely made, all white and golden, [and] had in her manners and in her way of speech something that was extremely pretentious and affected. The airs of insolent languor, which she assumed, were not to everybody's taste; the sentiments of delicacy and refinement, which she tried to express without understanding what they meant, put her hearers to sleep' (quoted in C.H. Hartmann and P. Quennell, eds, Memoirs of the Comte de Grammont, London 1930, p.110).
Soest is thought to have come from Soest in Westphalia, which was also the birthplace of Sir Peter Lely (1618-80). It is not clear when he arrived in London, but he had already made a name for himself there by 1658, when William Sanderson referred to him in his book Graphice.
Tradition has it that he was personally awkward with ladies, which made him unwilling to paint them and meant that his male portraits were generally more successful. Tate owns two strong and incisive male portraits by Soest: Henry Howard, 6th Duke of Norfolk, (Tate T00746) and Portrait of a Gentleman with a Dog, probably Sir Thomas Tipping, c.1661 (Tate T04162).
This work has been on loan to Tate from the National Portrait Gallery since 1958.
David Piper, Catalogue of Seventeenth-Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery 1625-1714, Cambridge 1963, pp.234-5
Aileen Ribeiro, The Female Face, London 1987, pp.14-15, reproduced in colour
Oliver Millar, 'Gerard Soest', in Jane Shoaf Turner (ed.), The Dictionary of Art, London and New Haven 1996, vol. 29, p.7