The portrait was painted about a year after the sitter’s marriage in 1793 to Richard Alexander Oswald. In praise of her beauty, the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote a song, "O, Wat ye Wha’s in Yon Town." The setting sun brilliantly illuminates the sky through a screen of tree trunks and foliage, a device Raeburn favored in the mid-1790s. The subject is shown seated outdoors holding a book, lost in thought.
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Title:Mrs. Richard Alexander Oswald (Louisa Johnston, ?born about 1760, died 1797)
Artist:Sir Henry Raeburn (British, Stockbridge, Scotland 1756–1823 Edinburgh, Scotland)
Medium:Oil on canvas
Dimensions:48 1/2 x 40 7/8 in. (123.2 x 103.8 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of Mrs. Paul Moore, 1980
The sitter's biographical details are uncertain. Called Lucy, she seems to have been christened Louisa, and was the daughter of Wynne Johnston of Hilltown. In 1793 she married Richard Alexander Oswald of Auchincruive, St. Quivox, Ayr. The couple had two children: Richard, who died without issue, and Mary, who in 1818 married Thomas Spencer Lindsay of Hollymount, County Mayo, Ireland. In May 1795, the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759–1796) addressed a song to her that he titled “O, Wat Ye Wha’s in Yon Town", and in a letter called her “that incomparable woman" (see Burns 1844). Lucy composed an air to which Burns set his poem “Thou Lingering Star" (Maurice Lindsay, The Burns Encyclopedia, 3rd ed., New York, 1980, p. 276). Forced to seek a warmer climate because of ill health, she traveled to Lisbon, where in 1797 or 1798 she died of pulmonary consumption.
The present portrait must have belonged to the sitter’s husband, because it descended until 1921 in the Oswald family. It has been dated about 1795 and was engraved in stipple by H. T. Ryall (Burns 1844). The setting sun brilliantly illuminating the sky through a screen of tree trunks and foliage in the background was a device Raeburn favored in the mid-1790s. Typically for the artist, there are extensive drying cracks, principally in the dark passages in the background. Raeburn painted another half-length portrait of about the same date that has been identified as Mrs. Oswald, née Lucy Johnston, since 1876, when it was included in the Raeburn exhibition in Edinburgh as no. 28, lent by James T. Gibson-Craig; however, it seems to represent a different sitter.
[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
the sitter's husband, Richard Alexander Oswald of Auchincruive, Ayr (until d. 1841); by descent to Major Julian Oswald of Auchincruive (from 1921); [Lewis & Simmons, New York, in 1923]; Sir Alfred George Temple, London (by 1926–27; on consignment to Agnew); [P. Jackson Higgs, New York, from 1927]; Mr. and Mrs. Paul Moore, New York and Hollow Hill Farm, Convent, New Jersey (1927?–his d. 1959); Mrs. Paul (Fannie H.) Moore, New York and Hollow Hill Farm (1959–80)
London. Paterson's Gallery. 1902, no. 12 (as "Mrs. Oswald of Auchincruive," lent by R. A. Oswald).
The Works of Robert Burns. Vol. 2, Glasgow, 1844, ill. opp. p. 58 (Ryall engraving).
Walter Armstrong. Sir Henry Raeburn. London, 1901, p. 109, dates the portrait in the collection of Mr. Oswald about 1794, notes that it was engraved in stipple by Ryall, and calls the ex-Gibson Craig picture the same sitter and a replica.
James Greig. Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A.: His Life and Works. London, 1911, p. 55, confuses it with the Gibson-Craig portrait.
Freeman O'Donoghue. Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. Vol. 3, London, 1912, p. 384, in his listing of Ryall's engraving, asserts that the sitter was painted before her marriage.
Frank E. Washburn Freund. "Sir Henry Raeburn." Sketch Book Magazine 3 (June 1926), pp. 34–35, ill., calls it "a comparatively unknown work . . . of the very first order" and dates it about 1795.
Katharine Baetjer. European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born Before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. New York, 1995, p. 194, ill. p. 195.
Katharine Baetjer. "British Portraits in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 57 (Summer 1999), pp. 58–60, ill. (color).
Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 160–62, no. 77, ill. (color).
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