Charlotte Cushman, an American star

Thomas Sully. Charlotte Cushman. Oil on canvas, 1843. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Thomas Sully. Charlotte Cushman. Oil on canvas, 1843.

As we celebrate Shakespeare in 2016, it’s also time to mark some other dates on the calendar. This Saturday, July 23, 2016, is the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Cushman’s birth. Cushman was among the finest and best-known American actresses of the 19th century and the first to achieve international fame.

Cushman was well-known for playing male characters such as Romeo, Hamlet, and Cardinal Wolsey and strong female characters like Lady Macbeth and Nancy Sykes in Oliver Twist. Although it was not so unusual for a woman to attempt Romeo and Hamlet, she was the first to play Cardinal Wolsey. Her career lasted some four decades, ending in a long series of farewell tours.

Lisa Merrill, who wrote about Cushman’s fascinating career in her book When Romeo was a Woman, was interviewed on our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast.

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In honor of Cushman’s birthday, we wanted to share just a few of the Cushman images in the Folger collection. Many are from a 1937 gift to the Folger Shakespeare Library from Louise Cushman, which includes paintings, portraits, promptbooks, and more. Louise was the widow of Victor Cushman. He was the son of Charlotte Cushman’s nephew, Ned Cushman, who was also Charlotte’s adopted son.

Several Cushman materials in the Folger collection depict her in costume onstage. One of her most popular roles was as Meg Merrilies in Daniel Terry’s Guy Mannering, based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel of the same title. The American actress Mary Anderson wrote that Cushman, as Meg Merrilies, “stood like one great withered tree, her arms stretched out, her white locks flying, her eyes blazing under their shaggy brows.” Charlotte Cushman acted Romeo opposite her sister Susan Cushman as Juliet, a pairing that was frequently depicted. She is also shown here as Lady Macbeth and Viola.

Other images from the Folger collection show Charlotte Cushman off-stage. Today, one of the most striking is of Cushman’s eye. Paintings like these played off the idea that one’s soul could be seen in an eye. Some other images show her in later life.

As Merrill explains in the podcast episode, Cushman formed close, romantic relationships with other women throughout her life, a fact reflected in some of these images. After hiring the portraitist Thomas Sully, Cushman became close friends with his daughter Rosalie. Two of Rosalie’s miniature paintings appear above, one of which was a birthday present to Charlotte Cushman. The pictures also include an image of Cushman with her final long-term partner, the sculptor Emma Stebbins.

For more information on Charlotte Cushman, listen to the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode above or search for images of her in the Folger’s digital image collection.

Thomas Parr’s porcelain of Charlotte Cushman and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet will be in the upcoming Folger exhibition, Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.

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