Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth John Singer Sargent Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Ellen Terry depicted Lady Macbeth in one of the most famous versions of Shakespeare's famous text. The play run from the 29th December 1888 at the Lyceum

John Singer Sergeant attended the opening night and that was what inspired him to create the painting.

The gown in the painting is the famous iridescent dress made from beetle wings. It was painted in 1889, a year after the play opened, and it quickly became just as much of a sensation as the play itself.

Many people speculate that this is one of the most popular historical incidences of a painting or photograph providing free advertising to a performance. The play, produced by Henry Irving, became an instant success.

Due to the fact the painting was created at the same time we will never know how one helped the other's popularity, but the two were certainly intertwined for the time the play ran.

The dress itself has such widespread attention that even Oscar Wilde made a comment on it that implied she supported local businesses by shopping in Byzantium.

The National Theatre trust has described it as one of the most iconic theatre costumes of all time.

The Dress

The gown that Terry was wearing in the painting is one of the focal points and was widely talked about after both the painting and the play. It was designed by Alice Comyns Carr and hand crocheted by Ada Nettleship.

Soft green wool and blue tinsel yarn were used to create the chain mail effect, but the real centrepiece of the dress was the 1,000 iridescent beetle wings that were used to decorate it from the green jewel beetle. The inspiration was the "scales of a serpent" and the costume was so well made that it was reused many times and even withstood visits to North America.

John Singer Sargent managed to pick up the detail of the dress with incredible skill. He uses the oil on canvas as a medium to pick up on the contrasting colours between Elaine Terry's red hair, the green dress decorated with beetle wings and the velvet cloak made from animal fur.

Ellen Terry herself was hugely impressed with both the dress and the painting. During her time playing Lady Macbeth in the performance, she wrote to her Daughter and expressed how much she wished she could see her dresses. Regarding the portrait of her she regarded it as "the sensation of the year" in 1889 when it was created.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in Detail John Singer Sargent

The Painting

As Macbeth is one of the most famously depicted works of Shakespeare, when John Singer Sargent came to create his piece it was evident he would need to create something different to what other artists have made in the past. The scene that was actually depicted in the painting was not one that was featured in the production itself.

Ellen Terry is standing erect while holding King Duncan's crown above her head. As well as the dress, Terry's red hair embroidered with gold lends itself to the colourful piece.

In keeping with the theme, the frame is decorated with Celtic motifs. Many people speculate that even the frame would have been designed by John Singer Sargent himself, if not actually made by him. The first time the painting was exhibited was by the New Gallery in 1889, the year it was painted.

It was exhibited at various places such as the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts and the World's Columbian Exhibition before being auctioned off to a wealthy man who donated it to the Tate Gallery for display in 1906.

Similar Works

After painting Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1889, John Singer Sargent went on to create many portraits. Prior to creating the portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth he created many portraits of women from the Salon. After unexpectedly getting into some hot water for the risque way he depicted some of the woman.

Due to this he toned down his work and created the picture of Ellen Terry at the same time as he created a painting of the Spanish dancer La Carmencita. His turn towards the more traditional worked and he was invited to be an associate of the Royal Academy, and then made a full member three years later.

By the twentieth century John Singer Sargent began to travel more and dedicate less time to his portrait painting. His confidence was no doubt knocked by the American artists Whistler who claimed that his painting style of loose brushwork looked like "a smudge everywhere".