Frances was the daughter of Thomas and Jane Dawson of Northumberland, England. In 1855 she married Frederick Richards Leyland, shipowner and art collector, but they separated in 1879. They had four children: Frederick Dawson (b. 1856); Fanny (1857-1880); Florence (1859-1921); and Elinor (1861-1952).
Her husband commissioned many family portraits from Whistler including her own, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland y106. She was known for her charming and lively character, and beauty. She became very friendly with Whistler's mother. Her sister Elizabeth Dawson was briefly engaged to Whistler.
Studies for her portrait include Study of Mrs Leyland m0430, Study for 'Symphony in Flesh-colour and Pink: Mrs F. R. Leyland' m0431, Mrs Leyland, standing holding a fan m0432, Study for 'Symphony in Flesh-colour and pink: Mrs F. R. Leyland' m0433 and r.: Study for 'Arrangement in Black, No. 2: Portrait of Mrs Louis Huth'; v.: Study for 'Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland' m0454. Whistler also made drypoints of her, The Velvet Dress (Mrs Leyland) , Speke Hall: The Avenue  and The Silk Dress .
She was also painted by D.G. Rossetti as Monna Rosa (Private collection), and by Philip Richard Morris (Private collection).
Merrill, Linda, The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography, Washington, DC, 1998, pp. 117-118, 128, 130, 296-97. MacDonald, Margaret F., Susan Galassi, Aileen Ribeiro, and Patricia de Montfort, Whistler, Women and Fashion, New Haven and London, 2003 .
The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, edited by Margaret F. MacDonald, Patricia de Montfort and Nigel Thorp; including The Correspondence of Anna McNeill Whistler, 1855-1880, edited by Georgia Toutziari, Online edition, University of Glasgow, 2003.
Margaret F. MacDonald, Grischka Petri, Meg Hausberg, and Joanna Meacock, James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, a catalogue raisonné, University of Glasgow, 2012, online website.