Three figures, two men and a woman, are seen seated around a round table with a lamp; all are engaged in reading in the pool of light provided by the lamp. The rest of the interior is fairly dark, particularly in the portion of the room behind the lamp. The man at the back of the table is shown roughly face-on; the man to the left is leaning back with his legs stretched out in front of him; the woman is closest to the viewer, shown in profile, holding her book fairly closer to her face.
As a young man, Whistler spent time living with the family of his half-sister, Deborah. Her husband, Francis Seymour Haden, was a physician and amateur printmaker and print collector; it was from Haden that Whistler learned the finer points of the etching technique--both from studying Haden's personal collections as well as from etching alongside his brother-in-law. Haden is seen to the left; at the back of the table was Haden's medical partner (and Whistler's own physician and friend), James Reeves Traer.
A man in a cap sits in a rowboat in the foreground, his chin on his hand looking at the viewer. A number of other boats, all unoccupied, create a barrier between the man and the open expanse of the river that curves towards the left in the distance. The water's edge is congested with wooden buildings and ships, some in dry dock.
In 1859, Whistler spent several months living in Wapping and Rotherthite, creating a number of etchings depicting the bustling commercial docks and warehouses that fringed the Pool of London. These views of modern life represented a departure from traditionally elevated subject matter of art, including scenes from the Bible and ancient history. The French poet Charles Baudelaire had encouraged contemporary artists to find 'the heroism of modern life' in contemporary subjects; when Baudelaire saw these views of London, he lauded Whistler's work as exactly the kind of new approach that he had hoped to inspire in artists.
Lady Eleanor Dundas is shown half length, seated in front of a brown background. She looks towards the light source to the right of the painting. She is dressed in a diaphanous black dress with an Empire cut and black veil. A sheer lace collar frames her throat. She has heavy lidded eyes and an alert or slightly mournful expression
Raeburn was a well-known portrait painter working in his native Scotland. He usually worked directly on the canvas without preliminary under drawing and his broad approach is well conveyed in the figure's costume. He was also very attentive to the sitter's features, framing Lady Dundas's features against the dark veil and gossamer lace of her dress.