When the National Gallery acquired this portrait in 1898 the true identity of the sitter had long been forgotten. Instead, because the subject's facial features bear a slight resemblance to Hogarth himself, the portrait was identified as the artist's sister, Ann. It was not until 1933 that a hitherto unnoticed inscription, 'Mrs Salter', in the bottom centre of the feigned stone surround revealed the true identity of the woman. The inscription suggested that the portrait was very probably the picture which had belonged to the author and engraver, Samuel Ireland (d. 1800), and which was described in an auction catalogue of 1801 as 'Mrs Salter of the Charterhouse, not engraved'. The fact that the picture had never been engraved inevitably helped to conceal the sitter's identity from future generations.
Elizabeth Salter (maiden name Secker), was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, where she was baptised on 22 February 1720. On 2 November 1744 she married the Reverend Samuel Salter, Rector of Burton Coggles, Lincolnshire, and Prebendary of Norwich Cathedral. The couple continued to live in Lincolnshire for some years where their two eldest children were born. In 1756 Dr Salter was appointed Rector of St Bartholomew's near the Royal Exchange, in the city of London. By then he was also connected to the Charterhouse Pensioners' Hospital, where he was appointed as Master in 1761. In order to accommodate Dr Salter and his wife, the Governors changed the regulations to allow a married man to occupy the post, thus enabling Mrs Salter to become the first female resident of the Charterhouse since its foundation in 1611. Mrs Salter continued to live at the Charterhouse with her husband until his death in May 1778. What happened to her thereafter is unknown.
At the time Hogarth painted this portrait Mrs Salter was twenty-one years old, and still unmarried since, according to a signature appended to the picture, it was made in 1741. Quite how she was known to Hogarth is unknown, although her future husband had been tutor to the 2nd Earl of Hardwicke, who was also tutored in mathematics by Hogarth's friend William Jones, whose portrait he had painted in 1740 (London, National Portrait Gallery).
The format employed by Hogarth in this portrait, depicting a bust-length sitter within a feigned oval, was something of a cliché by the 1740s. However, Hogarth adopted it quite deliberately as a means of exploring the relationship between painting and sculpture. The painted bust in an oval, as Hogarth knew, had originated in an attempt by artists to imitate sculpted busts, which in relief form were often set in round or oval carved surrounds. He was also aware of artistic debates generated since the Renaissance on the relative merits of sculpture and painting. Around 1739 Hogarth had begun painting portrait busts in ovals designed to recapture the three dimensional quality of sculpted images. These included Mrs Catherine Edwards (Geneva, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire) and James Quin (Tate N01935). Shortly afterwards he painted Mrs Salter. In this painting Hogarth, through the opposition of the green drape and the yellow and orange dress, used colouristic, rather than tonal, contrasts to bring out the sculptural qualities of the image. As Robin Simon has observed, in Mrs Salter Hogarth 'seems to dispense with his hard-won skills in the use of dramatic light and shade, in order to demonstrate that the painter can create form and a powerful impression of naturally-lit three-dimensionality almost through the manipulation of colour alone' (Simon, p.89).
In Mrs Salter Hogarth has applied the paint in thick broad strokes which accentuate the folds in the draperies and serve to further heighten the sculptural aspect of the work. Similarly, the white lace ruffles on the bodice appear to stand proud from the dress as an independent feature, forming an 's' curve around the pink floral bow. This device is surely an early attempt by Hogarth to give visual form in a portrait to his so-called 'Line of Beauty and Grace', a serpentine curve which, he asserted, gave rise to the most beautiful forms to be found in art and nature.
Robin Simon, The Portrait in Britain and America with a Biographical Dictionary of Portrait Painters 1680-1914, Oxford 1987, pp.89-90, reproduced in colour, plate 24
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth. British Painters born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery 1988, pp.104-6, reproduced in colour, p.105