a dress that "shimmered like the scales of a serpent" -- 1/5/24

Today's encore selection -- from Sargent's Women by Donna M. Lucey. John Singer Sargent was the greatest American portrait painter of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. Dame Alice Ellen Terry was a famous Shakespearean actress in Britain in the 19th century. She was a star! And for her soon-to-be-legendary performance as Lady Macbeth, costume designer Alice Comyns Carr created a dress that "shimmered like 'the scales of a ser­pent'" and inspired one of Sargent's most esteemed paintings:

"Ellen Terry, [was] the greatest stage actress and celebrity [in the late 19th century]. Born into a theatrical family, Terry made her stage debut at the age of nine. She married three times, had a series of lovers ... and gave birth to two children out of wedlock. This sort of behavior by a woman did not generally go over well in Victorian England, but in her case, it added to her fame. (She was eventually appointed a dame of the British Empire.)

"[John Singer] Sargent had painted the forty-two-year-old actress the previous winter. She was then starring as Lady Macbeth in a controver­sial London production. Sargent, an avid theater fan, took in the open­ing performance on December 27, 1888, and audibly gasped upon the actress's first entrance. That dress! It shimmered like 'the scales of a ser­pent,' and hugged Terry's figure like 'soft chain armour.' That had been the intent of the costume designer, Alice Strettell Carr, a friend of both Sargent and Terry. ...

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

"But the dress hadn't come easily. Carr couldn't find any fabric in England to cre­ate the sensuous yet metallic look she had in mind. She imported fine yarn from Bohemia -- strands of green silk twisted with blue tinsel -- and then crocheted the yarn into a dress based on a thirteenth-century design. It was floor length with large sweeping sleeves, but still lacked the theatri­cal brilliance to project to the final row of the theater. Inspiration came in the form of luminous insects. Carr had countless iridescent beetle wings sewn all over the dress. In a finishing touch, she arranged rubies and diamonds along the edges of the costume to create Celtic-style patterns.

"Upon seeing Terry in that fabulous dress with her hair hanging to her knees -- 'magenta hair!' Sargent exulted in a letter to the art collec­tor Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston -- Sargent knew that he had to paint her in full costume. It took some arm-twisting, but Terry finally relented and arrived by carriage to Sargent's Tire Street studio one soggy morning. (Across the road, Oscar Wilde was riveted as he looked out his library window to witness 'the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler.' Such 'wonderful possibilities' the street now possessed, Wilde mused.)"

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Donna M. Lucey


Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas


W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Copyright 2017 by Donna M. Lucey


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment