The portrait came to light during a 1984 appraisal of property in the estate of Josephine Heathcote Haskell. David Fraser of the City of Derby Museums and Art Gallery confirmed the attribution to Wright of Derby (correspondence in departmental files). Although no documentation concerning the works of art in her collection was found, Haskell, of English descent, was said to have bought English pictures and furnishings for her New York town house beginning in the 1930s. On grounds of style and costume, the canvas must date to about 1770, but the sitter’s identity is unknown, and unlikely to be discovered. In view of the date, she could have been from Liverpool, Derby, or the environs.
When painting women, Wright, influenced by the prominent portrait painter Thomas Hudson (1701–1779), under whom he had studied, showed a preference for satin fabric, pearl jewelry, gauze, and lace. The two artists also shared a fondness for the color rose, in Wright’s case, the exact shade illustrated here. Wright shows some of his sitters in their own, precisely described clothes, while others, such as this young woman, wear what were often referred to as draperies. For example, Mrs. Catherine Swindell, in an undated oval half-length (New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester) assigned to the same period as the present work, wears rose-colored draperies, with a low neckline and wide sleeves, as seen here. Both sitters have brown hair dressed high and twined with a gauze veil, a ribbon, and pearls.
The sitter in the Museum's portrait is making fillet lace, a length of which is attached to the small weighted bundle and to one of the two netting shuttles that she holds. Her scissors and workbag lie on the table. Such objects have been described by Stephen Daniels ("Joseph Wright," Princeton, 1999, p. 13) as “emblems of activity,” typical of a culture in which industrious behavior in the home was admired.
[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]