Cosmo Alexander was the son and pupil of John Alexander, an Aberdonian painter and engraver. He must be counted as one of the earliest established Scottish portrait painters and as such paved the way for Ramsay and Raeburn later in the century. However, the defining factor in his life was his belief in the Jacobite cause. He participated in the 1745 Rising, after which he went to Rome to seek refuge. He stayed there from 1747 to 1751, painting portraits of members of the expatriate Jacobite community, including the family of Bonnie Prince Charlie. He travelled throughout Italy and visited Paris before settling in London in 1754. A decade later, he visited the Netherlands, and in 1766, he embarked on an extended tour of the American colonies, where he once again found favour painting portraits of émigré Scots. He was the first teacher of the artist Gilbert Stuart, with whom he returned to Scotland in 1771.
This striking portrait of Madame Morehead is a particularly fine example of Alexander’s work. The date and inscription place this firmly amongst his sitters in Rome during his stay between 1747 and 1751. Researches into the still slightly mysterious Madame Morehead show her to have been in Paris in the early 1740’s and in Rome thereafter. Her movements seem to mirror the movements of the Jacobite court very closely and so it is probably safe to assume that with her Scottish sounding name (probably a derivative of Muirhead) and her peregrinations in Europe she was herself a supporter of the Stuart cause. A letter from Horace Mann to Horace Walpole, writing from Florence and dated 7th May 1748 mentions her thus: