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  • La Duse, Italian actress.


  • Duse.

    STEICHEN Edward (1879 - 1963)

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Title: La Duse, Italian actress.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Developmental silver print Album of 500 contemporary celebrities - Félix Potin collection

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 00-009897 / Pho1983-165-546-496

La Duse, Italian actress.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

To close

Title: Duse.

Author : STEICHEN Edward (1879 - 1963)

Creation date : 1906

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 21.5 - Width 16.3

Technique and other indications: Photogravure Published in Camera Work 1906, Plate III Duse Eleonora, known as La Duse (1858-1923)

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: ADAGP © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Picture reference: 03-001797 / PHO1981-25-29

© ADAGP Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Orsay Museum) / Hervé Lewandowski

Publication date: December 2011

Agrégée in Italian, Doctorate in Contemporary History at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines

Historical context

Photography, artistic form and commercial tool

From its release, at the end of the XIXe century, photography is proving to be a fascinating art form and a powerful ally in business strategies. Félix Potin, pioneer of large-scale distribution in Paris, since 1855 has won the loyalty of its customers by offering them cards reproducing political, literary, scientific, artistic, theatrical and sporting celebrities.

It is above all showwomen to take advantage of the advantages offered by photography: we are witnessing a veritable proliferation of portraits of the stars of the time: Cléo de Mérode, La Belle Otero, Liane de Pougy, Émilienne d'Alençon, Réjane, Cécile Sorel, Mata-Hari. If iconographic success is often due more to physical attraction than to artistic talent, there are also many cases of theater women who become icons through their charisma as artists, such as Sarah Bernhardt and her young rival, the Italian Eleonora Duse.

Child of the ball, Eleonora Duse was born on October 3, 1858 in Vigevano, Lombardy. The repertoire of the traveling family troupe includes adaptations of French novels, and it is in the role of Cosette, in the Miserable of Victor Hugo, that Eleonora begins, aged only four years. In another adaptation of a French novel, Therese Raquin Émile Zola, the young Duse obtained her first success in 1879. In 1881 Eleonora married a colleague of her company, Tebaldo Checchi, with whom she had a daughter, Enrichetta; but the couple split up fairly quickly. A free woman, the Duse flees interested relationships: her lovers are artists and men of letters, such as the writer, librettist and composer Arrigo Boito, with whom she formed a secret affair between 1884 and 1894, and the poet and novelist Gabriele D'Annunzio, her lover from 1894 to 1904, whom she accuses of having told their relationship in the novel He Fuoco (Fire, 1900). She is also credited with connections with the Italian woman writer and feminist Lina Poletti and the dancer Isadora Duncan, but the Duse remains, as usual, very discreet.

Her talent and strong personality have earned her international success: as a good actress as a tragic actress, La Duse does not disdain the classics, but she is particularly attracted by contemporary French theater, Dumas fils and Sardou. She even challenges Sarah Bernhardt on her own pitch, playing successfully The Lady of the Camellias and other pieces from the French actress' repertoire. As soon as it arrived in Paris in 1897, the Duse was greeted with enthusiasm and admiration, as evidenced shortly after by its appearance on the album Félix Potin.

Image Analysis

Unconventional beauty

Taken around 1900, the photo of Eleonora Duse is number 496 of the album; the corresponding notice reminds collectors of the qualities of the actress: “The mobility of her physiognomy [sic], its simple and natural play gives the meaning of life to the highest point ”. The photo shows a young woman who does not care to please at all costs: in an elegant but simple outfit, without pretension, without makeup or jewelry, her head tilted to the left side, the soft and melancholy gaze accentuated by the eyes drooping, the actress seems both accessible and mysterious; its beauty escapes the aesthetic canons of the time.

Even less conventional is the second shot, taken by Edward Steichen (1879-1973), American photographer and painter of Luxembourg origin. Arrived in Paris in 1902, Steichen met Auguste Rodin, who welcomed him into his studio. Partisan and master of the pictorialist movement, Steichen took advantage of Parisian cultural cosmopolitanism and introduced Americans to avant-garde French photographers.
Refusing, once again, any concession to an aesthetic frozen by canons that she finds unacceptable, in theater as in life, the Duse appears here in an expression of suffering, even anguish, highlighted by the famous asymmetry of her eyebrows which makes her gaze even more expressive. The shadow line of the side of the coat parallels the halo of the hair: both make the silhouette of the actress stand out against the sepia color of the shot.


An actress ahead of her time

The “Divina”, as D'Annunzio calls her, defies the theatrical and social conventions that weigh on most plays written and performed at the time; both on stage and in the city, she gives the image of a passionate woman but modest, tormented, but sure of herself and determined to preserve her independence. In no way subject to the "beauty obligation" which haunts almost all her colleagues, La Duse proudly declares: "I am beautiful when I want", refusing even stage makeup, which would detract from the naturalness of her mimicry. Likewise, his game, astonishingly true, refuses any rhetorical artifice. Consistent with her theatrical and aesthetic ideal, the Duse in her old age does not dye her hair, but she regrets not having been able to make films in her young age; she shoots a single film, Cenere (Ashes), directed by Febo Mari in 1916 and taken from a dark novel by Grazia Deledda, future Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926.
Born during a tour, it was also during a tour that Eleonora Duse died on April 21, 1924, in Pittsburgh. By the novelty of her play, the "Divina" showed the way to the artists of the theater of XXe century.

  • theater
  • cinema
  • Belle Epoque
  • Felix Potin collection


BRÉCOURT-VILLARS, Claudine, D'Annunzio and the Duse, the lovers of Venice, Paris, Stock, 1994.MOLINARI, Cesare, L'attrice divina: Eleonora Duse nel teatro italiano fra i due secoli, Roma, Bulzoni, 1985.SCHINO, Mirella, Il teatro di Eleonora Duse, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1992.SHEEHY, Helen, Eleonora Duse: a biography, New York, Alfred A.Knopf, 2003.WEAVER, William, The Duse, translated into French by Jean Clem, Paris, Éditions Balland, 1986 Original title: Duse, a biography, London, Thames and Hudson, 1984.Eleonora Duse stars in the silent film Cenere (1916), directed by Febo Mari. Video with modern musical accompaniment for tenor sax (Marcello Allulli) and piano (Giovanni Ceccarelli):

To cite this article

Gabriella ASARO, "La" divina "Eleonora Duse and the birth of the 20th century theatere century "

Video: Veneto- la città di Asolo amata da Eleonora Duse e non solo.. Canon Legria HD