One of the leading artists of the tendency in British art known as the Aesthetic Movement, Frederic Leighton trained in the continental academic tradition in Germany, Italy, and France and insisted upon beauty and form as the artist’s primary concerns. He was elected president of the Royal Academy in 1878 and elevated to the peerage in 1896.
In 1853, the young Leighton met Adelaide Sartoris, a former opera singer and celebrated hostess whose friendship provided him with an entrée into artistic and fashionable society. He seems to have painted this celebrated portrait of Adelaide’s daughter, Mary Theodosia (May) around 1860, the year after he settled in London. She is aged about fifteen and depicted in the setting of the family’s country residence in Hampshire. The fallen tree suggests the passage of time and mortality, accentuating her fragile beauty.
A descendant of the Kemble family—one of the most distinguished English theatrical dynasties—May was a talented amateur actress and singer. She married Henry Evans Gordon in 1871, and Leighton painted two further portraits of her in the succeeding years.
Adult: Portrait of May Sartoris
Adult: Portrait of May Sartoris, Clothing
Children's: Portrait of May Sartoris
Presumably painted for the sitter’s parents, Edward [-after 1879] and Adelaide Sartoris [1815-1879];
by descent to the sitter, May Evans Gordon (née Sartoris) [1845-1925];
by family descent to Mrs. M. Turner, London;
(Newhouse Galleries, New York, 1962);
purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1964.