An earlier version of this article was published in March 2018.
Is this a portrait?
Maybe. The pioneering Victorian artist Annie Swynnerton was a successful portrait painter – she was a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and her sitters included the author Henry James and leading Suffragist Millicent Fawcett – but this painting is notably different to those works. Portraits of the era tended to show the subject looking directly at the viewer, but the girl in this painting is shown in profile, absorbed in reading a letter. Although we don’t know who the sitter was, there are some clues in the painting – her clothing, for instance, indicates that she belongs to a wealthy family.
What is she reading?
We don’t know! While frustrating, this is true of many well-known paintings that depict people reading letters. The most famous example is probably Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter, which like The Letter shows a woman in profile to the left, reading by the light flowing through a window from that direction.
In both these paintings, we observe people responding to personal correspondence with the implication that it might be of great significance to them. Since we don’t know what the letter says, we’re left to imagine its message for ourselves.
Who was Annie Swynnerton?
An internationally acclaimed painter and passionate campaigner for women’s rights, Swynnerton co-founded the Manchester Society of Women Painters and supported the Women’s Suffrage movement. Born in Manchester in 1844, she began her artistic training at the Manchester School of Art, where women were still banned from drawing nude models, before travelling to Paris and Rome, where she was able to study life drawing.
She exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1879 and her work was championed by Academicians including John Singer Sargent, who bought her painting Oreads and presented it the Tate Gallery in 1922. The same year, Sargent and another collector of Swynnerton’s work, George Clausen, nominated Swynnerton for membership to the RA.
However, due to Swynnerton’s age at the time – 78 – she was made a “retired Associate”, meaning she played no active role in Academy affairs. She died in 1933, three years before the RA finally elected its first female Academician, Laura Knight. In Knight’s autobiography, she wrote: