John Singer Sargent

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth


John Singer Sargent 1856–1925
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2210 × 1143 mm
frame: 2500 × 1434 × 105 mm
Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906

Display caption

The famous actress, Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928), is shown here in the role of Lady Macbeth. At the first performance in 1888, Sargent was struck by Terry's appearance and persuaded her to sit for a portrait. He invented her dramatic pose, which did not occur in the production. Oscar Wilde, who saw Terry's arrival at Sargent's Chelsea studio, remarked, '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.'

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Inscr. ‘John S. Sargent’b.l.
Canvas, 87×45 (221×114·5); painted strips 6 3/4 (16·5), 3 (7·5), 4 (10) and 2 1/4 (6) turned over top, right, left and bottom edges respectively.
Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen (the elder) 1906.
Coll: Purchased from the artist by Sir Henry Irving; sold Christie's, 16 December 1905 (144), bt. Wyatt for Duveen.
Exh: New Gallery, summer 1889 (110); Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1890 (810); World's Columbian Exhibition, Chicago, 1893 (United States Section); 26th Autumn Exhibition, Liverpool, August–December 1896 (891); Dramatic and Musical Art, International Society, 1897 (124).
Lit: Art Journal, 1889, p.191, and 1907, p.79, repr. p.80; William Walton, World's Columbian Exposition, Art and Architecture: The Art, 1893, I, p.16, repr. facing p.5; Downes, 1925, pp.27, 48, 151–2; Charteris, 1927, pp.100–1, 137, 223, 261; E. Craig and Christopher St John (ed.), Ellen Terry's Memoirs, 1933, pp.233–4, 245, 247–8; Mount, 1955, pp.142–7, 413, 432; McKibbin, 1956, p.126; Mount, 1957, pp.121–4, 340.
Repr: Wood, n.d., facing p.22 (in colour); Pousette-Dart, 1924, n.p.; Manson and Meynell, 1927, n.p.

Dame Alice Ellen Terry (1847–1928), actress and third daughter of a well-known family of actors, is shown here in her famous part of Lady Macbeth, which she played in Sir Henry Irving's new production of Macbeth at the Lyceum Theatre, London, with Irving in the title role. Sargent was present at the first performance, 29 December 1888, and was immediately struck by the actress's appearance on the stage. Miss Terry was reluctant to sit for her portrait until the play's success was more assured, but sittings seem to have begun very soon after the first night, as Sargent, writing to Mrs Gardner 1 January 1889, recounts how bad light impeded progress on the portrait. However, it was finished in time for the summer exhibition at the New Gallery that same year.

The artist has invented a pose which shows Lady Macbeth about to place the royal crown of Duncan on her head. This incident does not occur in the play, nor has a study of the actress's prompt-books for Macbeth provided evidence that it was a dramatic invention on the part of Irving. The sitter's daughter, Miss Edith Craig, thought it a pity that such a misleading pose should have been adopted. (Information supplied by Miss Olive Chaplin, Curator of the Ellen Terry Memorial Museum.) The gold-embroidered green dress worn by Lady Macbeth was designed by Mrs Comyns Carr and made by Mrs Nettleship, and in a long notice of the play printed in The Times, 31 December 1888, a critic wrote of Ellen Terry's unusually tender interpretation of the part that ‘her matted red hair, hanging in long tresses, and her ruddy cheeks mark her as a raw-boned daughter of the North and she wears an appropriate dress of garish green stuff embroidered with gold. There is nothing of the martial or adventurous spirit in her composition to bring her into harmony with her barbarous surroundings’ (quoted by W. Moelwyn Merchant, Shakespeare and the Artist, 1959, p.139).

The Tate portrait, which Ellen Terry described in her Memoirs as the sensation of the year (1889), was bought by Irving for the Beefsteak Room of the Lyceum Theatre, where it hung in an alcove. Before the picture was finished Burne-Jones, who greatly admired the work, suggested one or two alterations in the colouring, which Sargent immediately adopted (Ellen Terry's Memoirs, 1933, pp.234, 245).

There is a grisaille sketch in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG2273, 33 1/2×28 in.) showing Lady Macbeth at the entrance to the Keep, ready to greet King Duncan. A pencil sketch (21 1/2×16 1/2 in.), done in 1906 for Ellen Terry's Jubilee Programme, belongs to the Ellen Terry Memorial Museum, Smallhythe, Kent.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II

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