The Victorian Actress

In the collection of the Taubman Museum in Roanoke, Virginia, there is a seven-and-a-half-foot tall portrait of Mrs. George Gribble by John Singer Sargent, and often you’ll find, hanging near the Sargent, a painting by Maria Oakey Dewing called “The Rose”. Ms. Dewing is a late-nineteenth century artist best known for her paintings of roses, but this particular painting is a figurative work depicting an actress (or model) of that era, wearing theatrical attire and remonstrating with a rose.

This painting was the genesis of my Victorian actress series. Dewing’s art is a horizontal piece, about life-size, showing the figure from waist to head. It is really very lovely, and I was quite taken with it. 

I was accompanied by a friend on this particular museum tour, and when I described to her the concept of a series of paintings of historical actresses, she enthusiastically endorsed the idea and went on to give me capsule biographies of the great actresses of the Victorian era (a passion of hers, it turned out). 

Though it turned out that Ms. Dewing’s painting isn’t an actress at all — it is a portrait of her daughter — this was the genesis of my Victorian actress series. Eventually completed for my MFA thesis exhibition at the University of Hartford.

For years, I’ve told anyone who asked, that my primary artistic interest is in soldiers and women. I have done quite a bit of work with the soldier subjects, but this was my first opportunity to indulge myself in serious paintings of women. The Victorian actress concept seemed an ideal beginning. Each of these women is a very interesting and picturesque creature, and this series allowed me to indulge my third primary interest­, which is history.