William Page, Jan 1811 - 30 Sep 1885
Charlotte Saunders Cushman, 23 Jul 1816 - 17 Feb 1876
Oil on canvas
Stretcher: 71.1 x 56.8 x 3.8cm (28 x 22 3/8 x 1 1/2")
Frame: 95.9 x 81.3 x 12.1cm (37 3/4 x 32 x 4 3/4")
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Restrictions & Rights
Born Boston, Massachusetts
Billed as “the greatest living tragic actress” of the mid-nineteenth century, Charlotte Cushman excelled in portraying strong women, notably William Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. She became best known, however, for convincingly portraying male characters, including Hamlet and Romeo. While other female performers titillated audiences by crossdressing as men, Cushman used her large physique, prominent jawline, and athleticism to astonish viewers with an uncanny experience of genderbending verisimilitude.
Cushman defied gender norms offstage as well, often dressing in the masculine style represented in this portrait. She managed her own career and demanded equal pay with male actors. Lack of public awareness of lesbian sexuality enabled her to sustain long-term intimate relationships with women while avoiding scandal. From 1845 to 1849, Cushman toured Britain, impressing audiences with her vigorous “American” acting style. During the 1850s, she became the center of an expatriate community of women artists and writers in Rome, where this portrait was painted.
Allerton Seward Cushman, Washington, D.C., great-nephew of sitter; his son Charles Van Brunt Cushman, Miraveste, Cal.; purchased 1972 NPG.