The sitter was the elder of Thomas and Margaret Gainsborough’s two daughters. Aside from a brief, unhappy marriage, she lived out her life with her parents and then with her sister, Margaret (1751–1820). Both sisters, but particularly Mary, became increasingly eccentric, if not mad, with age.
Gainsborough painted a number of portraits of the girls together when they were young: The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly (National Gallery, London), possibly left incomplete about 1756; The Painter’s Two Daughters (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (National Gallery, London), and a fragmentary picture, Margaret Gainsborough Gleaning (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), all from about 1758 to the early 1760s; and Portrait of the Artist’s Daughters (Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts), about 1763–64.
The portrait heads in The Painter’s Two Daughters were separated in or after 1833 and rejoined, probably between 1873 and 1875, before entering the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The present painting more or less replicates the portrait of Mary on the left side of that work, and since 1972, probably on the basis of Ellis Waterhouse’s opinion (1948–50), the Museum has identified the painting as a copy. It has been called autograph by Oliver Millar, Malcolm Cormack, and Robert Wark (verbal opinions of 1964, 1978, and 1980, respectively). John Hayes (1980) was also inclined to accept it, judging from a photograph, but Graham Reynolds (verbal opinion of 1983) identified it as a good copy made while the two halves of the London canvas were separated, which seems the most logical conclusion.
[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]