Angelica Kauffmann was born in Switzerland and studied painting in Florence and Rome, before being introduced to London society by Lady Wentworth, whom she met in Venice. At the same time, Kauffmann made the acquaintance of the celebrated painter, Joshua Reynolds, who was to prove a loyal supporter and friend, helping her to secure important commissions and ensuring that she was one of the thirty-four founder members of the Royal Academy in 1768.
In this painting, the young woman shyly avoiding the viewer’s gaze embodies the notion of modesty, and is typical of the type of allegorical and historical subjects that Kauffmann exhibited at the Royal Academy every year. Such subjects were often inspired by epic books and poems, such as that of her friend, James Fordyce, whose The Temple of Virtue of 1775 describes ‘a young virgin of the most lovely appearance, who could not perform her task without blushing. Her name was Modesty.’