John Singer Sargent lived in Paris until 1886. He studied with the painter Carolus Duran and made friends with a number of the Impressionists. His career took a radical turn following the scandal arising from the display at the 1884 Salon of his portrait of Madame Gautrier, a work known as Madame X. Sargents trips to the United States (1887-1888 and 1890) and to London (1893) brought him greater fame and new clients, and he was highly regarded on both sides of the Atlantic.
The present sitter, the Duchess of Sutherland, was one of the most celebrated and progressive members of London society. Sargent depicts her impressive form in a shady garden. With one hand resting on a fountain, she wears a green, floral pattern dress with a low-cut neckline. The Duchess seems to emerge from the natural world itself, which inspires the laurel leaf tiara on her red hair. The sources for this monumental composition extend from the great masters of the past that Sargent studied, including Velázquez and Van Dyck, to the 18th-century English portraitists.