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This enigmatic portrait of Anna Bilinska in mourning is one of the best-loved exhibits at Bath's Victoria Art Gallery, despite its sombre subject matter and monochrome palette. It is an arresting painting that quietly demands attention; the sitter's aura of profound melancholy is both moving and intriguing.

Anna Bilinska (1857–1893)

Anna Bilinska (1857–1893) 1884

Emmeline Deane (1858–1944)

Victoria Art Gallery

Bilinska was a talented Polish artist whose father had recently died when the portrait was painted in 1886. Dressed in deep mourning, she holds what might be a black feather fan on her lap. She met the British artist Emmeline Deane in Paris when they were both training at the celebrated Académie Julian. This was one of the few art schools in Europe that were open to female students in the nineteenth century. We don't know anything about their relationship, but given the compassion evident in this painting, it's fair to assume that the artist and sitter were close.

1891, oil on canvas by Emmeline Deane

Self portrait

1891, oil on canvas by Emmeline Deane

Bilinska studied and taught at the forward-thinking and innovative Parisian art school. She had ambitions to open a similar school for women in Poland, but died tragically young in 1893 from a heart condition, aged 36.

Prejudices of the time and her own early death and short career have meant that Bilinska's work is not well known, even in her home country. However, this is about to change, as the National Museum in Warsaw held a major exhibition of her work in 2021. This portrait travelled to Poland to be part of the show, on display alongside Bilinska's own paintings. We are delighted to participate in bringing this remarkable artist the recognition she deserves.

Emmeline Deane lived until 1944. She was from a wealthy family in Bath and although she pursued art seriously, it was only ever on an amateur basis. Despite this, her portrait of Bilinska was exhibited at both the Paris Salon and London's Royal Academy, where its intensity caused such a stir that it featured in a cartoon in Punch magazine.

You can learn more about Victoria Art Gallery's top treasures in a YouTube video.

Katharine Wall, Collections Manager, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath

A version of this article was originally published by The Guardian as part of The Great British Art Tour

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