The startlingly direct portrait is the work of Jane E. Bartlett, one of the many female students of the leading late nineteenth-century Boston portraitist, William Morris Hunt. Bartlett's sitter was an aspiring young actress named Sarah Cowell, who would make her New York debut the following year. Cowell's forward-leaning and unflinching regard were all but unheard of in female portraits of the period. Painter and sitter were clearly unconventional women distinguished by their professional ambition. Cowell probably sat for Bartlett as a willing model rather than as a patron; Bartlett owned the portrait when it was exhibited in 1880 under the title A Friend.