Painted in 1908, at the height of John Singer Sargent's preeminence as a superb society portrait painter, Mildred Carter is a perfect example of the work that brought him unparalleled public acclaim until the end of his career.
Mildred Carter was the daughter of American diplomat John Ridgeley Carter, who Sargent painted in 1901 (private collection), and Alice Morgan Carter. Mildred married Viscount Acheson in 1910, becoming Countess of Gosford on her husband's accession to the title as fifth Earl in 1922. In her portrait, Sargent depicts her in a silky white dress with a diaphanous tulle shawl and a luxurious red and green Japanese robe. Sargent skillfully juxtaposes rich, tactile fabrics with the smoothness of her porcelain-like skin. The artist illuminates Mildred Carter's face, highlighting her delicate features and at the same time adeptly capturing the sparkle of the brooch in her hair and the luster of her pearl bracelet.
As in Sargent's best portraits, the sitter projects a forceful presence, combined with a quality of elegance and social ease. The composition is in itself straightforward, consisting of a three-quarter length depiction of Mildred Carter. To this, Sargent has added many of the refinements of technique that mark this as one of his classic works of portraiture, particularly the sitter's engagement with the viewer, her luminescence and the dashing brushwork with which the artist paints her extraordinary gown and robe. The influence of Grand Manner portraiture, by artists such as Velázquez and Van Dyck, on Sargent's work can be seen with the staged landscape backdrop that Mildred Carter is set against.
In part due to his "instinctive refinement," Sargent became the most sought-after portraitist of his age. In 1902, Charles Caffin wrote in American Masters of Painting comparing Sargent's work to his well-known contemporary Giovanni Boldini, "It would be quite impossible for him to have any feelings toward his [Sargent's] subjects other than those of a true gentleman; and, though he may represent in a lady a full flavour of the modern spirit, he never allows the modernity to exceed the limits of good taste. For the same reason Sargent's pictures, though many of them have a restlessness of their own, seem quiet alongside Boldini's. The latter makes a motive of nervous tenuosity, and his pictures, if seen frequently, become wiry in suggestion, and defeat their own purpose of being vibrative; but Sargent's, controlled by a fine sobriety of feeling, another phase of his unfailing taste and tact, retain their suppleness. Their actuality is all the more convincing because it is not the motive, but an incident." (as quoted in G.A. Reynolds, "Sargent's Late Portraits," John Singer Sargent, New York, 1986, p. 176)
According to Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, "By 1900 Sargent's position as the premier Anglo-American portrait painter of his generation seemed assured. Critics were describing him as a living old master, an artistic colossus who towered above his contemporaries." (John Singer Sargent: The Later Portraits, vol. III, New Haven, Connecticut, 2003, p. 1) Indeed, Sargent had become so successful as a portrait painter that he began to decline commissions in favor of subject pictures and landscapes. However, his reputation as a portraitist had already been established among critics and the public. Sargent's handling of painterly brushstrokes as well as his sitters' comfortable poses and easy gazes had changed critics' view of his portraits, which were revered more as paintings rather than straight forward representations of the sitter. In 1899, a critic wrote that the faces of Sargent's portraits seemed to "presage the perplexities and anxieties [that] loom up before the contemporary man and woman." (as quoted in T. Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent, New York, 1994, p. 75)
In earlier years, Sargent had alternately enjoyed critical success and negative reviews of his work. In Paris, as a student of Carolus-Duran, he compared favorably to his peers. "He was older than his years, he was better educated, he was more worldly, he was confident, and he had the high patina of sophistication. His fellow students were dazzled by him, and baffled... He was forbiddingly superior, yet modest; at best he was a perplexing enigma. No definition could help observers to negotiate his character." (S. Olson, "On the Question of Sargent's Nationality," John Singer Sargent, New York, 1987, p. 17) After Carolus-Duran's first review of Sargent's work, the stern master is reported to have concluded that the young man "showed 'promise above the ordinary.'" (C. Ratcliff, John Singer Sargent, New York, 1982, p. 37) Only four years after his first formal instruction, Sargent's The Oyster Gatherers of Cancale (The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) won an honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1878. In 1881 he won a second-class medal at the Paris Salon for Madame Subercaseaux (Private collection, Santiago, Chile). The following year, his El Jaleo (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts) and Lady with a Rose (Charlotte Louise Burkhardt) (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) attracted favorable attention from reviewers.
Following the aftermath of the scandalous Madame X, Sargent left Europe and traveled to the United States in 1887. This brief trip proved to be a fruitful one, which helped restore his career. He used his time in the States to experiment by painting diverse portraits, which honed his skills and allowed him to work without the anxiety of constant critical reviews by established European institutions. By the time he embarked for London, "he had developed a new and successful style of portrait, one that retained the freshness and mood of elegant informality of his most inventive early work but was tempered by a less 'eccentric' look." ("Sargent's Late Portraits," John Singer Sargent, p. 158)
By 1908, Sargent had reached the pinnacle of his career. The year he completed Mildred Carter, Christian Brinton wrote in Modern Artists, "Beyond all question he is the most conspicuous of living portrait painters. Before his eyes pass in continuous procession the world of art, science, and letters, the world financial, diplomatic, or military, and the world frankly social. To-day comes a savant, a captain of industry, or a slender, troubled child. To-morrow it will be an insinuating Semitic Plutus; next week may bring some fresh-tinted Diana, radiant with vernal bloom. Everyone, from poet to general, from duchess to dark-eyed dancer finds a place in this shifting throng." (as quoted in "Sargent's Late Portraits," John Singer Sargent, p. 147)
While accomplished in many areas of painting, it was portraiture that brought Sargent his greatest measure of fame. Since their creation over a century ago, works such as Mildred Carter have been celebrated for their audacity, brilliance, and power, and they have established for Sargent his pre-eminent place as the greatest portraitist of the Gilded Age.