Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery
The three Sheridan sisters were known as the "Three Graces". Caroline Sheridan (later Norton) was the middle, not the eldest sister, and all other portraits of her show her as a dark-eyed beauty. The sister on the right most resembles her. Please see the portrait of Caroline painted by the same artist later in life (c.1839), as well as one by Frank Stone (c.1845), attached below.
I suggest the following attribution: L-R Georgiana Sheridan (the youngest), Helen Sheridan (the eldest) and Caroline Sheridan (the middle sister).
It has always been a mystery as to the actual identity of the sitters. It has been presumed the middle lady is Miss Caroline Norton, as she is the most notable. Who are the other 2 people in the portrait? They cannot be her children as her children were boys and they seem too young to be her sisters unless painted from other portraits or made to look young.
Caroline Norton was notable, but her sister Helen was an accomplished literary figure in her own right and it seems likely that the eldest would be the apex of this pyramid, laying a sheltering arm on each of her younger sisters.
The middle one at the back seems to be painted on a larger scale compared to the other two - obviously made up from three different portraits, and also goes against the laws of perspective!
I think one argument against the eldest being in the centre was that the current title of the work is "The Honourable Mrs Caroline Norton and Her Sisters", if Caroline is the feature of the title would she not also be the feature of the painting and therefore take up the central prominent position?
William Etty's painting appears to be taking some artistic license if in fact it was painted in 1847. The sisters would have been approximately the same age; around 38 to 40 years old according to Sheridan family records. My colleague Paul Sheridan sees however a resemblance between the sister (rhs) and her grandmother (standing) in 'Elizabeth and Mary Linley' by Gainsborough and suggests there is perhaps also a slight resemblance between the sister (centre) and Mary.
The features of the face to the right, and the very dark hair coincides with the face that we see in the two images provided by Kim Parker, above.
The face of the middle woman is more like the face of the elder sister Helen. She is in the position of higher status, which she would have held prior to marriage, regardless of whether this later changed through fame or marriage. I don't think that the argument that the painting currently identifies a young sister is sufficient reason for her to be at the centre of the painting.
I have attached a portrait of Helen Blackwood, the elder sister.
Here is Etty's portrait of Caroline Norton which is on loan to Pollak House, Glasgow.
It is probably the same as the one to which Kim Parker provides a link, dating it c.1839.
This discussion has now been linked to the group 'Yorkshire and the Humber: Artists and Subjects'.
As noted, the Sheridan sisters were often characterized as "The Three Graces". I came across this slide which presumably identifies the sisters, L to R Helen (b. 1807), "the good one" (i.e., Aglaea); Caroline (b. 1808), "the witty one"; (i.e., Euphrosyne); and Georgiana (b. 1809), "the pretty one" (i.e., Thalia). (Reference Helen's assessment of the sisters' characteristics "The Nation", volume 81, p. 343.)
If the portrait is in fact of the Sheridan sisters, I am perplexed at the diminution of Helen's portrait.* Was the artist's composition a bit of commentary by a social insider? With little interest in politics, Helen may have been considered a bored child by her sister, Caroline. (Ref. "The Narratives of Caroline Norton By R. Craig p. 139). Others long remembered her as an "angel of beauty and sweetness" (Ref. "Queens of Beauty and Their Romances" by William Willmott-Dixon p. 452).
Caroline's assertive gaze and dominant posture seem at odds with a "joyful or mirthful" personality. Caroline's firm grip on Georgiana's shoulders may refer to her social and other dependence on her sister.
Note also that if the author of the slideshow is correct about L to R order, Helen's blonde hair is inconsistent with later portraits.
*Pardon my aside, but I was not familiar with diminution as a painterly device. Imagine my surprise when I found a similar treatment of Mrs. Carter in Thomas Gainsborough's "Mr and Mrs Carter" (ca. 1747-48) .
This is an interesting discussion about who is who in this triple portrait, but what concerns me is the authority for calling it a portrait of the Sheridan sisters. Dennis Farr's monograph on Etty (1958) lists it as such. But is there a compelling reason, other than the traditional one, for the identification? The painting appears not to be recorded until it went through the salerooms in April 1912, so that catalogue might give more information. Farr did consider that the appearances of the women did not fit the named sitters, but decided that Etty was using earlier portraits of them to compose his own work, or that the other two women were other members of the Sheridan family.
Etty did paint Caroline Norton as we have seen with the above links. And that was in the later 1840s. He also reputedly used her as the model for his Joan of Arc, a vast triptych, in 1847.
Caroline Norton appears not to have worn her hair in ringlets. She favoured a simpler coiffure, as can be seen in most portraits of her. And she had very dark hair, so the only sister she could possibly be in the portrait is the one on the far right and even with that, she is shown considerably younger than she was at that time. Questions do arise. It might well be that this is a portrait, certainly by Etty, probably showing three sisters, but very possibly not the Sheridan sisters.
Also, what should be corrected on Art UK is the spelling of Helen Sheridan's title, which is Clandeboye.
I suggest that the current title of the work, "The Honourable Mrs Caroline Norton and Her Sisters", is more likely to indicate its descent in the Norton family and their association with her ("our great grandmother and her sisters" etc) than to indicate the location of Caroline amongst the subjects.
Was she socially the first amongst the sisters at the time it was likely painted? If so, she may have been given the central position which would otherwise be unlikely.