Richard Cosway RA (1742-1821)
The black hat worn at an angle over the sitter’s wig in this portrait is very similar to that worn by the Duchess of Devonshire in her portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds...
This portrait by the famed society miniaturist Richard Cosway would have been painted at the height of his fame, when his close relationship with the Prince of Wales (later George IV) gave him access to the most fashionable aristocrats. Although at present unidentified, the sitter in the present work bears more than a passing resemblance to Georgiana Cavendish (née Spencer), Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), the beautiful first wife of 5th Duke of Devonshire.
Cosway painted the Duchess and her family, including her friend Elizabeth Foster who was to become her husband’s second wife. Described by the art critic, writer and socialite Horace Walpole as ‘a phenomenon’, Georgiana influenced society fashion and politics and dominated the gossip columns of the day. The close resemblance to the Duchess may indicate that this sitter was one of her circle of close friends, many of whom aped her idiosyncratic style and commissioned the same artists for their portraits.
The black hat worn at an angle over the sitter’s wig in this portrait is very similar to that worn by the Duchess in her portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds [Chatsworth]. The sitter’s tilted head and high collared white dress follows closely a portrait of the Duchess dated to circa 1782, also by Cosway, in the Royal Collection [RCIN 420124].
The present work dates just prior to Cosway’s slightly looser style of painting. By the mid 1780s, his palette had lightened but he remained committed to painting on smaller ivories in some detail. After the mid 1780s he began to paint with more flourish, leaving parts of the ivory bare and using more abstract and watery blues to describe the sky background. He was probably introduced to the Prince of Wales by his lover and morganatic wife, Maria Fitzherbert and by 1785 the prince allowed Cosway to sign his work with the extravagant Latin title Primarius pictor serenissimi Walliae principis (‘principal painter to his royal highness the prince of Wales’). In 1786 he was appointed official miniature painter and general advisor for the decoration of Carlton House, the prince’s residence in London.
This work demonstrates Cosway’s great skill in capturing the tranquil beauty of a sitter in what was a spirited but somewhat artificial section of eighteenth century society. His portraiture allowed him to compete, and in many cases overshadow, the major oil painters of the day. Although by the first decade of the nineteenth century he had fallen out of favour with the prince, Cosway continued to dominate as the primary painter in miniature into the new century.
 A portrait of Elizabeth Foster, later Duchess of Devonshire, by Richard Cosway, was sold by Philip Mould & Company 2016