Gainsborough's first acquaintance with the woman in this portrait was at Bath in 1766, when he painted her as Mrs. Anne Horton, wife of a relatively obscure member of the gentry (National Gallery, Ireland). Within five years, her scandalous, clandestine marriage to the king's youngest brother had transformed her into a royal duchess--though one who was barred from court and shunned by much of polite society. Her contested social position no doubt contributed to the ostentatious displays of wealth and status for which she became notorious. The numerous portraits she commissioned of herself and of her husband suggest a similar concern with ratifying a carefully orchestrated public image.
Smaller in format and more intimate in conception, the present portrait differs fundamentally from the grand, public paintings that the duchess was commissioning during the 1770s, and yet it is equally the product of the sitter's prickly vanity and status-consciousness. She is presented in the fancifully contrived drapery that Gainsborough often employed for his female sitters, but with a greater quantity of jewelry than is typical in his "fancy-dress" portraits. The heightened suggestion of wealth is more representative of the duchess's proclivities, and Aileen Ribeiro has observed that the gold signet ring on the duchess's right hand and the pearl bracelets (embellished with portrait miniatures) on her wrists almost certainly represent real items of jewelry with which the duchess chose to be represented. As bracelets of this type most frequently appear in royal portraiture (including Gainsborough's 1777 full-length of the Duchess of Cumberland), Ribeiro speculates that the jewelry is intended to signal not only the wealth of the sitter, but also her special status as a member of the royal family.
Further evidence of the duchess's intervention in this portrait is possibly provided by her hairstyle. The fleeting fashionability of the high-dressed coiffure shown here barely survived the 1770s, and would have appeared highly artificial and unflattering by the next decade. It may have been the duchess herself who had the coiffure repainted in the low, full style of the late 1780s, as she also appears to have done with Gainsborough's full-length portrait of 1777. In its revised incarnation, the present painting became well-known through at least ten exhibitions and an engraving.