Painted in 1903, at the height of John Singer Sargents preeminence
as a society portrait painter, Mrs. William Crowninshield Endicott, Jr. is a grand example of the large, majestic works that brought him unparalleled public acclaim until the end of his career.
The sitter, neé (Marie) Louise Thoron, was the daughter of Joseph and Anna Barker Ward Thoron and married William Crowninshield Endicott Jr. in 1889. Sargent had previously painted the sitters mother-in-law, Mrs. W.C. Endicott, in 1901 and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Joseph Chamberlain, the following year. Both of these portraits hung in the family home on 163 Marlborough Street in Boston, Massachusetts. Mrs. William Crowninshield Endicott, Jr. is the first portrait Sargent completed during his visit to the United States in 1903 in order to continue work on his commission from the Boston Public Library.
Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray write of the present work, "As Sargent had, as yet, no studio in Boston in which to work, he was invited to paint Mrs Endicott in her own home...Sargent was a dinner guest at the Endicott house the night before the sittings were due to start, and he found Mrs Endicott wearing a Worth gown which had been designed especially for the portrait. He dismissed both this and another party dress in favour of the black and white flowered muslin in which she was eventually painted." (John Singer Sargent: The Later Portraits, New Haven, Connecticut, 2003, p. 105) In the present work, Sargent masterfully captures the various textures and patterns of the sitters dress and shawl. He further heightens the soft, voluptuousness of the fabrics by juxtaposing them with highlights of cool gold in Mrs. Endicotts bracelet, fan and hair clip.
As typical in Sargents best portraits, the present work depicts the sitter with 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 the elegant woman, holding a rose to her chest with one hand and a gilded fan at her thigh in the other. Sargent has added many of the refinements of technique that mark this as one of his classic works of portraiture, particularly the sitters engagement with the viewer, her luminescence and the dashing brushwork with which the artist paints her extraordinary gown and shawl. The influence of Grand Manner portraiture, by artists such as Velázquez and Van Dyck, on Sargents work can be seen with the staged backdrop.
Sargent painted the present work in the Endicott home, which provided a unique and intimate environment that largely contributes to the success of the portrait and its divergence from his other works of the period. Charles Merrill Mount described the creation of Mrs. William Crowninshield Endicott, Jr. in his 1955 biography of Sargent: "Apparently preferring not to take a studio for the still-undetermined period before he would leave for Washington, he undertook [the painting] in the Endicott's Marlborough Street house. In the drawing room the light did not come from a good direction, and he was told of an empty bedroom on top the house that might suit his needs."
Mount continues, "The room itself was regular in shape, except for the rounded projection of four windows, behind his back and toward his left as he stood before the easel. He had no model stand, so he placed Mrs. Endicott just beyond the last window, where the light hit her well and she was against a shadowed section of the wall. It was not a perfect light, halftones hovering over the face, tones that werea nuisance and difficult to blend into the value scale. He got the hang of it though, and proceeded to make use of this unfortunate feature to give the picture a delicacy of tone that brings an intimacy generally lacking in the more impersonal studio lighting. When he stepped back fifteen feet from the easel his back was pressed against the window casements, and that too limited him, for he did not want to place strong accents without seeing their effect from a greater distance. As always he allowed himself to be guided by the circumstances, turning the difficulties of the situation into strengths, replacing his more accustomed boldness with delicacy, and his strong accents with subtle half tones."
"[Sargent] broke the tragedy of painting her hair gray by saying, 'I'll put some gray in your hair, because it will get gray; successful in that little ruse, he next determined to add a stylized landscape background, doing it in tones of warm ocher and umber, carrying through, the rich hues of the figures. It was entirely different from his usual product, more intimate, with a most engaging friendly warmth. The hands and draperies were left as improvisations, a flower and a fan were merely indicated for their color, without being brought into focus of making important additions to the composition. In sum it was a large sketch, with all the best of Sargent, in a warm and mellow mood." (John Singer Sargent: A Biography, New York, 1955, pp. 240, 244)
Mrs. William Crowninshield Endicott, Jr. is saturated with Sargent's widely celebrated style and decisive artistic selections. Containing all of the hallmarks most sought after in the artists oeuvre, Mrs. William Crowninshield Endicott, Jr. stands today as a masterwork among Sargents most desirable portrait commissions of this period.