Category Archives: Art

Was Yvette Guilbert “The Ugliest Woman in The World”?

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Yvette Guilbert (1865-1944), French cabaret singer and actress of La Belle Époque. Artist Henri de Toulouse Lautrec was captivated by her and she modeled for him many times, although what emerged was not always a flattering likeness.

Yvette Guilbert Salue le Public (1894)

Perhaps Toulouse Lautrec was faithful in his rendering of Guilbert’s unconventional appearance. Rumour has it that she exchanged the following words with Oscar Wilde at the studio of Wilde’s friend, artist Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy:

Ne suis-je pas, Monsieur, la femme la plus laide de France ? (Am I not, Sir, the ugliest woman in France?)

Guilbert asked.

To which Wilde replied:

Du monde, Madame, du monde (The world, Madame, the world).

It’s a great story but I’m not certain I believe it since Wilde was generally far more gallant than that. Although I decided not to include this peripheral figure in Wilde’s Women, there is evidence that she met Wilde.This pencil drawing, dated 1898, by Catalan artist Ricard Opisso i Sala (1880-1966), shows Toulouse Lautrec, Wilde and Guilbert sitting together at Le Moulin de la Galette, Montmartre, Paris.

They are together in death since both are buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

The main source for this article can be found on the website here.





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Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

English actress Ellen Terry is immortalised in an iconic painting by Anglo-American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who was considered the leading portrait painter of his day. In this portrait, which I was privileged to be allowed to include in my book Wilde’s Women,Terry is wearing her costume for Lady Macbeth, a remarkable emerald gown that shimmered with the iridescent wings of the one thousand jewel beetles that had been sewn into it.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906

One of my favourite passages in Wilde’s Women describes Oscar Wilde glancing out of the window of his Tite Street home and seeing Terry, a great friend of his, arriving at John Singer Sargent’s Chelsea studio for a sitting. This extraordinary sight prompted him to remark:

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.[i]

Later, Wilde chose Singer Sargent’s iconic painting for the frontispiece of the July 1889 issue of The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited from 1887-1889.

To his great credit, Sargent suggested that Alice Comyns Carr, a vocal advocate of aesthetic dress who had worked on the design for Terry’s magnificent costume, should co-sign his painting since he considered her as much its creator as he. The woman who made Comyns Carr’s design a reality was dressmaker Ada Nettleship who, along with her team of thirty seamstresses, also made Constance Wilde’s beautiful aesthetic wedding gown. Constance’s gown, the subject of intense public scrutiny, went on public display in March 1884, and was described in society magazine Queen:

…rich creamy satin dress…of a delicate cowslip tint; the bodice, cut square and somewhat low in front, was finished with a high Medici collar; the ample sleeves were puffed; the skirt, made plain, was gathered by a silver girdle of beautiful workmanship, the gift of Mr. Oscar Wilde; the veil of saffron-coloured Indian silk gauze was embroidered with pearls and worn in Marie Stuart fashion; a thick wreath of myrtle leaves crowned her frizzed hair; the dress was ornamented with clusters of myrtle leaves; the large bouquet had as much green in it as white [ii].

Terry loved her Lady Macbeth costume and wrote about it in her autobiography, The Story of My Life:

One of Mrs. Nettle’s greatest triumphs was my Lady Macbeth dress, which she carried out from Mrs Comyns Carr.  I am glad to think it is immortalised in Sargent’s picture. From the first I knew that picture was going to be splendid. In my diary for 1888 I was always writing about it:


“The picture of me is nearly finished, and I think it is magnificent.  The green and blue of the dress is splendid, and the expression as Lady Macbeth holds the crown over her head is quite wonderful . . .”


“Sargent’s picture is almost finished, and it really is splendid. Burne-Jones yesterday suggested two or three alterations about the colour which Sargent immediately adopted, but Burne-Jones raves about the picture . . .”


“Sargent’s picture is talked of everywhere and quarrelled about as much as my way of playing the part . . .”


“Sargent’s Lady Macbeth in the New Gallery is a great success.  The picture is the sensation of the year.  Of course, opinions differ about it, but there are dense crowds round it day after day.”


Since then it has gone nearly over the whole of Europe and is now resting for life in the Tate Gallery.  Sargent suggested by this picture all that I should have liked to be able to convey in my acting as Lady Macbeth.

She looks both wonderful and terrible it it.

The dress, which is exhibited at Smallhyde Place, Terry’s former home, was painstakingly restored in 2011. I am very much looking forward to visiting Terry’s former home with the Oscar Wilde Society. I delivered a talk on the close connections between Terry and Wilde in the barn theatre in September 2016 and you can read the transcript here.


[i] W. Graham Robertson, Time Was (London, H. Hamilton ltd., 1933, reprinted by Quartet Books, 1981), p.233

[ii] From Queen, reprinted in Freeborn County Standard from Albert Lea, Minnesota, 23 July 1884, p.7; also described in Sherard, Life of Oscar Wilde, p.258

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Painted Love

John Constable - The Hay Wain (1821)

I wrote a version of this article for the Health Plus supplement of the Irish Times in 2011. The measurable and beneficial effect of art on the human psyche is extraordinary. I know the sun is shining at the moment but if you fancy a break do pop into an art gallery and get a beauty boost.

‘It was William Dargan, the engineer who constructed Ireland’s first railway line between Dublin City Centre and Kingstown, now Dun Laoghaire, and went on to lay more than eight hundred miles of rail crisscrossing the country, who made arrangements for a substantial display of artwork to be included in the Great Dublin Exhibition of 1853. This display was located on Leinster Lawn, a public space facing Merrion Square in Dublin, and such was the enthusiasm of the visiting crowds that the authorities undertook to house a permanent public art collection in a custom built gallery on that very spot as a lasting monument of gratitude to Dargan. A statue of the visionary man who brought public art to Dublin stands in front of this fine building.

So why did our predecessors demonstrate such enthusiasm for art, and why do natives and visitors alike continue to flock to our many art galleries? The answer lies in the positive affect that looking at an attractive work of art has on our sense of well-being. In fact sometimes the beauty we encounter in art can be overwhelming. A well recognised condition can leave viewers of art so overcome by the beauty of what lies before them that they may swoon or experience a sensation of weakness and dizziness. It even has a scientific name.

Stendhal Syndrome, a psychosomatic illness that causes dizziness, fainting, rapid heartbeat, confusion and, in some recorded cases, hallucinations takes its name from the 19th-century French novelist and art critic Stendhal (aka Henri-Marie Beyle), who documentd this phenomenon after his 1817 visit to the beautiful Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. He wrote about it in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio and describes it thus:

“As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart (that same symptom which, in Berlin, is referred to as an attack of the nerves); the well-spring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground”.

The syndrome was given his name as recently as 1979 when Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini observed and documented more than one hundred similar cases among visitors to the magnificent galleries of Florence.

In 2011, in a series of brain-mapping experiments, Semir Zeki, Professor of Neurobiology and Neuroaesthetics at University College London concluded that viewing beautiful art can give us as much pleasure as being in love. When his research subjects were shown artworks that they considered beautiful, blood flow to the relevant area of the brain increased by as much as ten per cent – the same effect as is observed when a subject gazes at a loved one.

By studying MRI scans it was evident that exposure to beautiful art triggers a surge of the positive neurotransmitter dopamine into the medial orbito-frontal cortex of the brain and this leads to feelings of intense pleasure.

Of course beauty is subjective but paintings by the English romantic painter John Constable (his Hay Wain is above), the French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (his portrait of Countess D’Haussonville is below) and Italian Baroque artist Guido Reni produced the most powerful ‘pleasure’ responses among subjects.

These findings have significant implications for government policy. At a time of economic hardship when arts funding is constantly under threat and the need for public art is relentlessly questioned it is encouraging to learn that the availability of such beauty to the citizens of Ireland and the wider world has a positive and proven beneficial effect on our psyche.’ Portrait of Countess D'Haussonville by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres First published in the Irish Times Health Plus on November 22, 2011

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