Originally a full-length figure of a woman in an evening gown buttoning her long white gloves on a mountain peak, this is the upper portion of a painting which was cut into two parts after Lambert’s death. The woman looks at the reflection of her face into a mirror suspended in midair by two cherubs – but the mirror image is distorted to present a full view of the woman’s face. In the original painting she overlooked a wide stretch of blue mountain ranges, forests and lakes. There was a white dog on her left and a smiling boy or satyr and an iguana on her right. The model for this painting was the actress Valentine Savage, who appeared as one of Titania's attendants in A midsummer night's dream at the Savoy Theatre in February 1914.
In this painting Lambert paid homage to Velázquez’s The toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus ) 1647–51 (National Gallery, London), an image of a female nude with a youthful Cupid holding up a mirror so she can look at herself and the viewer. But as in Lambert’s painting, this is not an accurate reflection. Lambert also makes a witty reference in The actress to Reynolds’s Mrs Billington 1789 (Beaverbrook Art Gallery Frederickton, New Brunswick), a portrait of a celebrated singer posed as St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, standing on top of a globe with cherubs about her head. Given Mrs Billington’s scandalous public life, the portrait was seen as a blending of the sacred and the profane.
Contemporary critics observed the novelty of the composition. On 1 February 1913 The Times said that it was an allegorical satire and on 2 February 1913 P.G. Konody noted in the Observer that Lambert’s principal concern was with the design and arrangement of colour, adding that ‘whether it be due to a curious perversity or a desire to startle, he is apt to depart from rational canons, to do the unexpected, to fly in the face of the public’.
In 1914 the painting, originally perhaps three metres high, was exhibited in the Venice Bienale, where the skyscape would have reminded viewers of Italian murals by Veronese and Tiepolo.