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6 Actresses in Art
It wasn’t until the 17th Century that you’d even see a woman on stage in England
Art Stuff 07 Jan 2022

Actors and Actresses embody countless other people, moments, and emotions during their career. But how does art capture them in a still image?

Before the late 19th Century, being an actress was often little respected as it was assumed that the woman in question was likely also a sex worker, or at best unfit for a respectable marriage. It wasn’t until the 17th Century that you’d even see a woman on stage in England, as all the female parts would be played by men in the name of respectability. 

Today we’re looking at 7 of our favourite depictions of actresses in paintings to celebrate their legacies.      

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth – John Singer Sargent 

photo via tate

This towering portrait of Ellen Terry playing Lady Macbeth captures the intensity of the character as well as how striking Terry was on stage. Sargent attended the play in 1888 and was so wowed by Terry, that he managed to convince her to sit (well – stand) for this portrait. Oscar Wilde saw the painting in Sargent’s studio in Chelsea and famously said “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 actress referred to her costume as completely “Rossetti”, because of her long red wig and luxurious clothes which the Pre-Raphaelites would love.

Margaret Hughes – Peter Lely

photo via wikimedia

Margaret Hughes is thought to be the first actress to perform on stage following the English restoration of theatre under King Charles II. She played Desdemona in Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’. Hughes became the sole mistress (a great honour at the time) to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and the pair lived a domesticated life together and shared a daughter Ruperta.  Rupert’s family were not all that impressed, and when a Danish ambassador informed Rupert’s sister that Margaret was the most virtuous of women in England, she supposedly said that that’s not a great compliment. Peter Lely was a successful court painter in London, and he painted the portraits of various noblemen and James VII & II.

Sarah Siddons with the Emblems of Tragedy – Sir William Beechey

Photo via wikidata

Siddons was most famous for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth, and her pose in this portrait may be inspired by that role. Here she holds the tragedy mask and a dagger, and behind her is a monument to Shakespeare. The actress was known for her tragic roles and was named by one critic as “tragedy personified”. Siddons’ father was the manager of a touring theatre company and before Sarah married she worked as a lady’s maid. During her career, she played Hamlet many times over 30 years, which brought an interesting gendered dynamic to the canonically male character. She also played Lady Macbeth while she was pregnant, which created new tension in the play.

Nell Gwyn – Simon Verlest

Photo via wikimedia

Nell Gwyn is one of the most famous actresses of all time, and an early celebrity. Nell was the mistress of King Charles II, and had two sons by him. She enjoyed cross-dressing and went by ‘William Nell’ between 1663 and 1667, wearing a fake beard. In fact, she was playing a man when King Charles first saw her perform.  She was raised in a brothel run by her mother and took to the stage when she was 14, having worked in the theatre selling oranges to the audiences. She was mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ famous diary as “pretty, witty Nell” in 1665, by which time she had gained celebrity status. She was known for her witty insults and quick comebacks, and in one portrait of her she is seen making sausages (wink wink).

Sarah Bernhardt – Sir William Nicholson

Photo via tate

Bernhardt rose to worldwide fame, touring the world and playing some of the most famous roles in theatrical history including Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, and Hamlet. She was part of an intimate circle of friends with the most prominent playwrites and authors of her day, such Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo. She lived a glamorous, independent life, travelling, taking lovers, and having a son by the Prince of Belgium. Her son Maurice was born illegitimately, but aged 19 he publicly declined to be formally recognized as the Prince’s son, explaining that it was entirely enough to be the son of Sarah Bernhard, who was world-famous in her own right. In addition to her acting talent, she also practiced painting and sculpture. She was an early supporter of the work of Alphonse Mucha, who she commissioned to produce posters for the theatre she opened in her own name. 

Author: Verity Babbs

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