Portraits of Actresses in The Yellow Book

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Light line drawing showing a tall slim woman standing in profile, holding a glove and wearing a small hat on her black hair
Portrait of Mrs. Patrick Campbell, by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)
Portrait sketch of a woman in full body profile, wearing a long skirt, jacket, and lacey shawl
Portrait of Madame Réjane, by Aubrey Beardsley, Reproduced by line-block engraving in The Yellow Book, vol. 2 (July 1894). Public Domain. Yellow Nineties 2.0.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The avant-garde little magazine The Yellow Book connected contemporary print and performance cultures through its inter-medial allusions and representations. Art editor Aubrey Beardsley, for example, was known for his portrayal of actresses, dancers, and theatrical settings. His “Portrait of Mrs Patrick Campbell” appeared in the first volume of the magazine (April 1894), and his “Portrait of Madame Réjane” in  the second (July 1894). At the time, the British actress was performing in The Masqueraders and the French actress was playing the title role in Madame Sans-Gene, both in London’s west-end theatre district. Beardsley’s portraits are similar in style and subject. Each shows the actress, in costume, in full profile; each is drawn in light lines. However, the public response to the two images could not be more dramatically different.

The critics abhorred Beardsley’s portrayal of Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a celebrated Shakespearean actress of the London stage who later became manager of her own company. The image was reviled as grotesque, morbid, and an offence to both the model and the community at large. The reviewer for the Westminster Gazette gave a particularly vitriolic attack, hyperbolically claiming that the only way to rid the public of such travesty would be “a short Act of Parliament to make this sort of thing illegal” (see Review on Y90s).

One might have assumed, given the similarity of subject and style, that the critics would also react unfavourably to Beardsley’s “Portrait of Madame Réjane” in the Yellow Book‘s next volume, brought out in July. On the contrary: reviewers praised Beardsley’s illustration of Madame Réjane. The Saturday Review, for instance, called the portrait more lifelike and human than anything we remember seeing by this artist, and so far as the costume goes, it is an excellent likeness of the French actress” (see Review on Y90s). The Chronicle critic concurred, calling the portrait “a delicious and lifelike sketch, in which the quaint expression and pose of the famous actress are most vividly caught” (see Review on Y90s).

Why this stark contrast in reception? Bridget Elliot argues that the intersection of ethnicity with nationalist notions of morality and femininity caused critics to see and judge representations of the British actress differently than the French actress. Her argument reminds us that however aesthetic it may be, art is always more than just “art for its own sake.” There is a politics to representation.

Lorraine Janzen Kooistra

see: Bridget Elliot, “New and Not so ‘New Women’ on the London Stage: Aubrey Beardsley’s Yellow Book Images of Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Réjane.” Victorian Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, 1987, pp. 33-57.