(nee Edna May)
Sir William Orpen (1878-1931) Irish painter
Oil on canvas
205 x 93cm. (80 3/4 x 36 1/2 in.)
According to Orpen's Studio Book this portrait was undertaken in 1915, a time when he embarked on several full length works of women in this long, narrow format, standing on the chequered floor of his studio. Others included Mrs St. George with her dog, and Madame Errazuriz (exhibited as Madame X [many other artists painted her, John Singer Sargent first in 1880).
The 'slender and elegant as a stalk of asparagus' format served Orpen well. His most renowned usage of it was probably for his over-life size portrait of Mrs St. George painted in 1914 (sold in these rooms, 16th May, 2003, lot 57), where his lover's plumed hat exaggerates still further her lofty superiority over all she surveys. Although seated, Sir John Lavery's Lady in Red: Portrait of Constance Bennett (also included in this sale, lot 62) bears comparison in the same respect. Closer still is John Singer Sargent's immortalisation of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889, coll. Tate Gallery) - the double link here being that Edna May was also an actress.
Edna May Pettie was born on 2nd September 1878 in Syracuse, New York, the daughter of a postman. She swiftly started climbing both career and social ladders upwards from this relatively humble start (in contrast to her fellow-American, Mrs St George, who enjoyed immediate and privileged entrée as the daughter of the 'sphinx' of Wall Street). Edna was a child performer from the tender age of five: by seven she was familiar with the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and at sixteen travelled to New York to study for the stage at the New York Conservatoire, making her first appearance on the city's stage in 1896, a year after her professional début in her home town of Syracuse. It was under contract to George W. Lederer that her big break came, when she appeared as Violet Grey in the musical comedy The Belle of New York. After receiving a moderate reception on Broadway in 1897, the show transferrred to the Shaftesbury Theatre, and despite all predictions became an astonishing success, running to 697 performances, effectively elevating Edna to the 'A-list' overnight.
At the height of her career and widely-acclaimed for her beauty as much as for her acting roles, Edna May's first marriage, to Fred Titus, a professional bicyclist, was dissolved in 1904. This left her a magnet for various suitors and admirers, most notably Oscar Lewisohn, a New York millionaire who had inherited a industrial fortune. They were married in London on June 4th 1907 at which point Edna took retirement from the stage to take on the role of devoted wife, the couple based initially at Cranborne Court near Windsor until moving to New York in 1915 to escape the War in Europe. She was eventually to return to London, long after Oscar's death in 1917, establishing herself at The Ritz until her own death in Lausanne Switzerland on 1st January 1948. Her memorial remains in the form of the two films she made, Forgotten; or An Answered Prayer, in 1911, and Salvation Joan, made the year after the completion of the present work.
We are grateful to Chris Pearson
of the Orpen Research Project for additional information used in cataloguing
Studio Book for 1915: 'Portrait of
Mrs Lewisohn (Edna May) sold for £700'
The Artist's Studio Book, 28-15/1915;
Offered for sale at Sotheby's, London,
13 May 04, Session 1, 2:00 PMSale L04620,
By: Natasha Wallace
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