Home / Stage / Trilby 1895: Virginia Harned and Bohemian Allure_david [13]

© David S. Shields

Trilby 1895: Virginia Harned and Bohemian Allure    Dec 5, '10 3:19 AM
by David for group historicalziegfeld #501

George Du Maurier's 1894 novel Trilby, a fin de siecle fantasy of artistic life in Bohemian Paris of the 1850s, struck a popular nerve, becoming one of the major bestsellers of the period, and the source of an equally popular stage play in 1895.

The story of a Parisian grissette--a laundress and artist's model--Trilby, loved by three painters (particularly a fellow modeled upon James M. Whistler) who falls under the sway of a Jewish musician and hypnotist, Svengali, and is transformed from a tone deaf wench to a diva by being entranced, combined sex, the supernatural, and romantic fantasy about artists.

The 23 year old Virginia Harned, a Boston girl raised in England, and trained as a classic actress, secured the dream role in the American 1895 staging of the play, and became the single most photographed character of the 1890s. The major theatrical photographers--Sarony, Falk, Chickering, Morrison--generated tens of thousands of cabinet cards of Harned.

There was something about the story--the transformation of a model's personality and being under the magnetical force of an artist-savant, that fed photographers' not so secret wishes. The repeated emphasis in the literature on portrait photography at this period on the photographer's power of posing the sitter/model confesses the dream of control.

Harned married and later divorced actor Edward Sothren, enjoyed a lively career playing Shakespeare, drawing room drama, and stage adaptations of novels. She would never enjoy again the visual celebration of her characterizations that she did in Trilby.

The novel includes a famous scene in which Little Billie (the Whistler artist) draws a 3/4 profile portrait of Trilby's foot, the most perfect foot of any model in Paris, on a wall, where it becomes an icon of Bohemia. Sarony supplies his own photographic celebration of the foot here. David S. Shields

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