This portrait was shown at the first-ever Society of Artists exhibition in London in 1760. The artist, Joshua Reynolds, kept it in his studio until 1764. The finished painting was clearly intended to display both his skill and his theory of portraiture.
Elizabeth Gunning was a famous Irish beauty. She married the 6th Duke of Hamilton in 1752. Recently widowed at the time of this portrait, she was shortly to marry John Campbell, the future 5th Duke of Argyll. Reynolds portrays her here in peeress’s robes, worn by members of the aristocracy, but the rest of her costume and her features are idealized, inspired by antique sculpture.
The doves and the relief sculpture of the Judgement of Paris on the left are allusions to the goddess Venus. They are typical devices of Reynolds’s intellectual and elevated brand of portraiture.