Famed Shakespearean actor Ellen Terry (1847–1928) played the role of Lady Macbeth in Henry Irving’s production at the London Lyceum beginning in December 1888. Sargent admired her performance and costume and convinced her to pose for him. He shows Terry placing a crown on her head after the murder of Duncan, the Scottish king. The incident does not occur in Shakespeare’s text, nor was it a part of the performance. Sargent, however, sought a dramatic motif to make his portrait convincing, both as the personification of a role and as the characterization of an individual actor. Terry’s intense and powerful gaze enhances this climactic moment. Alice Comyns Carr, a close friend of the artist, designed Terry’s spectacular costume, using green silk and blue tinsel adorned with thousands of beetle wings to make the actor look like a serpent. Sargent captured the iridescent effect with impressionistic dabs of pigment.
Purchased from the artist by Sir Henry Irving; his sale, Christie's, London, 16 December 1905, lot 144, bt Wyatt for Sir Joseph Duveen; presented by him to the National Gallery of British Art, now the Tate Gallery, London, 1906, no. 2053.