Wheatley's portrait style has much in common with the traditional conversation pieces of artists such as Arthur Devis. While the figures in Wheatley's portraits are larger in proportion to the background than in Devis' works, both artists employed the same formula of presenting middle-class families engaged together in some pleasant activity, often with one member of the group looking out at the viewer.
The figures of this group are arranged in a parklike setting, silhouetted against a backdrop of dark-green foliage. Wheatley suggested the psychological relationships of the subjects through their physical arrangement in the group. Despite the difference in size, the mother and daughter are, in effect, mirror images of each other, brought together by similarity of their forms and postures. The daughter's intimate relationship with each parent balances and unifies the composition.
Wheatley portrayed sitters' faces with great sensitivity, but his artistic talents are best seen in drapery and costume details. Moving easily from broad, suggestive brushstrokes to ones that are fine and precise, he achieved a variety of techniques that stimulate and delight the eye.
Lady Sarah Spencer, sixth daughter of John, 7th duke of Marlborough, by 1891. Mrs. Boyle; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 7 July 1894, no. 98, as by Zoffany); (P. & D. Colnaghi, London). Lady Grace Alexander Lister; (sale, Sotheby's, London, 24 February 1960, no. 122, as by Zoffany); purchased by (P. & D. Colnaghi, London) for Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia; gift 1983 to NGA.
- Works by the Old Masters, and by Deceased Masters of the British School. Winter Exhibition Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1891, no. 17, as by Zoffany.
- Painting in England 1700-1850, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 1963, no. 265, repro., pl. 206.
- Painting in England 1700-1850: from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, Royal Academy of Arts, London; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1964-1965, no. 221 (souvenir, 78, repro.).
- Gifts to the Nation: Selected Acquisitions from the Collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1986, unnumbered checklist
- An Enduring Legacy: Masterpieces from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1999-2000, no cat.
- Webster, Mary. Francis Wheatley. London, 1970: 25-27, fig. 30, 120 (no. 10).
- Ribeiro, Aileen. A Visual History of English Costume: The Eighteenth Century. London and New York, 1983: 100, repro. 101.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 436, repro.
- Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 322-323, color repro. 323.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 146, repro.
The medium-weight canvas is finely plain woven; it has been lined. The ground is white, probably containing white lead, smoothly and evenly applied and of moderate thickness. The painting is executed thinly and very fluidly (possibly with an admixture of resin to the oil to increase fluidity) blended wet into wet; the features and costume are articulated with finely drawn touches of rich, opaque paint, with some impasto in the white highlights. There is a slight pentimento in the positioning of the man's right knee; the girl's pink skirt can be seen beneath the paint of the breeches. There is some solvent abrasion in the darks and the impasto has been flattened during lining; there is a substantial area of retouching in the hem of the lady's apron close to the girl's skirt, and the large cracks through the man's face have been inpainted. The most recent varnish is synthetic, slightly toned with black pigment; residues of the earlier, unevenly removed natural resin varnish have discolored yellow to a significant degree.