Milton Avery met his future wife, Sally Michel, an art student from Brooklyn, while spending the summer of 1924 painting and sketching in and around Gloucester, Massachusetts. In 1925 he moved to New York to be near her, and in 1926 they were married. Portrait of the artist's wife 1944 is based on an earlier brush and ink drawing, Sally seated, of 1936. The painting follows the pose of the drawing, though there are some changes: the eyes, downcast in the drawing, look outward in the painting and, more significantly, differences of light and shade have been eliminated in the painting, as have details of the sitter's clothing. That Avery was prepared to base a painted portrait of his wife on a drawing executed almost a decade earlier is indicative of the development of his work towards a painting style based on colour harmonies. Sally Avery described the painting as:
a particular favourite of mine. Milton painted it from a sketch he had made — being particularly intrigued by the color arrangements which were tender and striking at the same time. At that time we were very crowded in our Greenwich Village apartment. We decided to take some of our favourite paintings and put them in storage — thus removing the temptation to sell.1
The painting remained in storage until 1980, when it was bought by the Australian National Gallery.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.212.