Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Art Eyewitness Close-up: Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent


Sargent: Portrait of Artists & Friends

Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 30 to October 4, 2015

By Ed Voves

During the early winter of 1889, Oscar Wilde witnessed a scene so extraordinary that otherwise only he could have imagined it. A striking red-haired woman, dressed in a shimmering green dress, travelled in a carriage down Tite Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of London.

A queen, Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, had come to Victorian London. She was clad in a dress decorated with the iridescent wings of over one thousand beetles. Her gown glistened as if covered by links of emerald green armor.

"Lady Macbeth" was in reality Ellen Terry, the queen of the London stage. Terry was appearing as Lady Macbeth at the Lyceum. She was approaching the studio of John Singer Sargent on Tite Street to have her portrait painted when Wilde glimpsed her. 

Wilde immortalized the moment as only he could have done:

The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities. 

The galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are always "full of wonderful possibilities." However, the presence of Sargent's Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in the Met's Sargent: Portrait of Artists & Friends exhibit imparts a special power to an already spectacular array of paintings.

Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn, Ellen Terry, 1883

Ellen Terry (1847–1928) was born into an English theatrical family and literally grew-up on the stage. The adolescent Terry served as a muse for leading English artists during the 1860's, the height of the "Angel around the House" era with its depictions of demure girls and young women. Terry figured in two of the most celebrated mid-Victorian portraits, Julia Margaret Cameron's Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen and Choosing by George Frederic Watts.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Ellen Terry, at the Age of Sixteen, 1864

In 1864, Terry, aged seventeen, married Watts, thirty years her senior. According to Michael Holroyd's 2008 biography of Terry, the young actress was disenchanted by the backstabbing rivalries of theatrical life. She saw marriage to Watts, "England's Michelangelo," as a means to enter a brilliant world of culture and refinement.

George Frederic Watts, Choosing, 1864

Watts was a bit too cultured and too refined. Terry nearly withered in the artificial "sweetness and light" atmosphere of the Holland House group which counted Watts as a leading member. How Terry managed to make good her escape and retain the approval of Victorian society can best be followed in Holroyd's wonderful book, A Strange Eventful History.

In 1878, Terry entered into a professional "marriage" that was as successful as her domestic relationship with Watts was a disaster. Terry's partner was Henry Irving, the first actor who would be knighted in recognition for his services to the British stage. These were many and far-reaching, including his support for Terry's career. But the opportunity Irving extended to Terry to work on equal terms with him was not only generous. It was a smart move.

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Sir Henry Irving, 1880

Irving's acting specialty was to give richly nuanced interpretations to protagonists customarily regarded as villains. In 1879, he and Terry forever redefined The Merchant of Venice with a version of the play that stressed humanity in the personality of Shylock. Irving naturally portrayed Shylock, with Terry as Portia. The British stage was transformed.

In 1888, Irving and Terry did the same for Lady Macbeth. In Terry's astute handling of the role, it is Lady Macbeth's misguided love and belief in her husband, rather than innate evil, that leads her to encourage him to seize the throne of Scotland.  

Window & Grove, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 'Macbeth', 1888

If Lady Macbeth is not evil incarnate, the extraordinary dress she wears is a testament to the effect of wickedness. The shimmering gown exemplifies the disguises that people use to throw a cloak of glamour over sordid and murderous deeds.  

Oscar Wilde, who saw Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, grasped the significance of her dress. Where all the others in the play wear the rough homespun and furs of a Dark Age kingdom, her attire makes for a vivid contrast. 

"Lady Macbeth seems to be an economical housekeeper and evidently patronizes local industries for her husband's clothes and servant's liveries," Wilde archly commented, "but she takes care to do all her own shopping in Byzantium."

Anne Lloyd, gallery view of  Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

The radiant, alluring gown was created by the noted designer, Alice Comyns Carr. It still exists, recently restored, and can be seen at Ellen Terry's home, Smallhythe, a National Trust site in Kent. For all its exotic, indeed sinister, beauty, the dress is a stage prop. It was Ellen Terry who made it come alive.

Sitting in the audience on the opening night of Macbeth on December 29, 1888, John Singer Sargent was entranced. He decided to paint Terry so as to evoke this magical effect.

Window & Grove, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 'Macbeth', 1888

Terry, after some initial hesitation, agreed to pose for her portrait as Lady Macbeth. Sargent began doing preparatory sketches. He was undecided upon which moment in the play to focus. Then in a stroke of true genius, Sargent made one of the boldest decisions of his career. He imagined an original scene not in Shakespeare’s text. 

After King Duncan is murdered, Lady Macbeth takes hold of a diadem to crown herself queen. In this one, astonishingly powerful scene, Sargent evoked the emotional transformation of Lady Macbeth from a loving, if ambitious, wife to a power-maddened, then guilt-stricken, wretch.


Anne Lloyd, close-up of  Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

We look into the eyes of Sargent’s Lady Macbeth and watch her soul dissolve.

Sargent's triumph with Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth matched that of the actress herself on the stage. An art critic for the Magazine of Art exclaimed that no contemporary portrait "excels this in grandeur of pose, fineness of modelling, and magnificence of colour.”

Indeed, Sargent succeeded in conveying the actual, electrifying feel of the play, even though what he depicts is an imagined moment in Macbeth. Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth truly has the impact of a live stage performance. Sargent captured the sense of physical movement and character development taking place on stage.

Even now, the effect is dazzling when you walk into the gallery of Sargent: Portrait of Artists & Friends and confront Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. Nothing really prepares you for the impact of this truly stunning work of art. And very few of the other works in the Metropolitan Museum's Sargent exhibition, for all their undeniable quality, can match its power

There is an urge to call Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth the "show stopper" of Sargent: Portrait of Artists & Friends. It is that - but this incredible painting is so much more besides.
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth stops us in our tracks as moral beings, not just art lovers. We are compelled to look into her deranged, conflicted eyes and think on the subject of good and evil.  We've seen such looks in other eyes on other faces.  Most likely, we will see that look again - hopefully not in the mirror.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, the National Portrait Gallery, London, the Getty Collection, Los Angeles, the Google Art Project and Anne Lloyd.

Introductory Image:      
John Singer Sargent (1856-,1925, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889
Oil on canvas 87 × 45 in. (221 × 114.3 cm) Tate: Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906
Photo: Tate, London, 2015

Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn (1848-1908), Ellen Terry, albumen cabinet card, 1883, 5 5/8 in. x 4 in. (142 mm x 102 mm) image size. Given by Algernon Graves, 1916. Photographs Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, London, England, NPG Ax5571

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879), Ellen Terry, at the Age of Sixteen, carbon print about 1875 from photo negative 1864. Height: 243 mm (9.57 in). Width: 243 mm (9.57 in). Collection The J. Paul Getty Museum, Image used via Google Art Project .jpeg

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), Ellen Terry ('Choosing'), oil on strawboard mounted on Gatorfoam, 1864, 18 1/2 in. x 13 7/8 in. (472 mm x 352 mm). Accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Government and allocated to the Gallery, 1975.  Primary Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, London, England, NPG 5048

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), Sir Henry Irving, oil on canvas, 1880, 18 1/8 in. x 18 3/4 in. (460 mm x 475 mm) overall.Given by Dame Ellen Alice Terry, 1910. Primary Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, London, England, NPG 1560

Window & Grove Photographers (Published by J. Beagles & Co), Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 'Macbeth'. bromide postcard print, 1900s, from photo negative 1888. 4 7/8 in. x 3 1/8 in. (124 mm x 80 mm). Purchased, 1982, Photographs Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, London, England, NPG x16991

Anne Lloyd, Gallery View at Metropolitan Museum of Art of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 2015.  Copyright of Anne lloyd, all rights reserved

Window & Grove Photographers, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 'Macbeth'. albumen cabinet card, 1888. 5 3/4 in. x 4 1/8 in. (146 mm x 105 mm). Purchased, 1982. Photographs Collection,  the National Portrait Gallery, London, England, NPG x16980

Anne Lloyd, Close-up of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth at the Metropolitan Museum of Art2015.  Copyright of Anne lloyd, all rights reserved


  1. Wonderful post! It's astonishing how alive Sargent's painting of Terry as Lady Macbeth is and how seemingly " dead " and dull the photographs of her in the same role are in comparison . It is by no means simply the adding of color.

    One can gain a real sense of Terry's legendary performance from Sargent's canvas. He has placed us in the audience .Lady Macbeth's iridescent dress , her terror stricken look and ill gotten crown, flash and shimmer before our eyes as they did then. The pose does not depict one moment, but many. It expresses role. It is in a sense; footage . Sargent is expressing what he felt as well as what he saw . He is offering us an experience That is art ...what photo can compete with that ?