Working during the Victorian period of the late 1800s, Thomas Eakins faced numerous scandals because his contemporaries often perceived the frank, realistic subject matter he depicted as provocative. The Courtship, however, without controversy, shows a young woman, garbed in modest colonial attire, spinning cloth as her suitor looks on. The subject was likely inspired by the recreation of a colonial New England kitchen—which housed a spinning wheel—at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, an event that triggered widespread nostalgia for America’s past.
Many scholars believe "The Courtship" was also inspired by Diego Velázquez’s "The Fable of Arachne (The Spinners)" from 1657. Eakins traveled to Spain in 1870, where he studied Velázquez’s work. This visit made a lasting impression on Eakins and spurred him to develop his distinctive realist style.