Between 1840 and 1841 Lewis spent almost a year living in Constantinople. The first recorded mention of his arrival in the city occurs in two letters written by his fellow artist David Wilkie on the 14th and 15th of October, 1840; ‘We have encountered John Lewis from Greece and Smyrna…He has been making most clever drawings as usual.’ Some time in 1841 Lewis visited the town of Bursa (then called Brussa), about one hundred miles south of Constantinople in northwestern Turkey. A centre of the silk trade, Bursa in the 19th century was populated by peoples of different ethnic origins hailing from the Ottoman territories in Europe. Lewis made a number of splendid drawings of the local inhabitants, as well as some of the main sites of the city, such as the late 14th century mosque of Ulu Cami and the Yesil Türbe, the mausoleum of Sultan Mehmet I, built in the 1420’s.
The present sheet, as shown by the signature and inscription at the lower right, was drawn during the artist’s stay in Bursa in 1841. The fact that the woman depicted in this drawing is not veiled would indicate that she was not Muslim but rather a Christian of an Eastern denomination, probably from an Armenian merchant family in Bursa. It seems likely that, during his stay in Bursa, Lewis gained access to the home of a wealthy local Armenian family, to judge from the handful of drawings he produced of female members of the same family in the interior of what appears to be their home. The same young woman, for example, is seen at the left of a larger, finished watercolour by Lewis depicting four women in an interior, also signed and dated ‘Brussa 1841’, which recently appeared at auction in London. The same model also appears in another of Lewis’s Bursa drawings of 1841; a study of two women today in the collection of the Whitworth Art Gallery of the University of Manchester. A larger, unsigned autograph replica of the present sheet is in the collection of the British Museum.
As Briony Llewellyn has noted, chief among Lewis’s reasons for travelling to the Near East in 1840 was ‘a desire for novelty, a need to infuse his art with exotic and colourful subjects that represented a culture other than European. Surviving sketches suggest that his sole aim was to accumulate ethnographic information, but with an unprecedented accuracy and comprehensiveness...Lewis’s images are often of anonymous native men and women, in which the focus is as much on the elaborate details of their costume as on their individuality.’