Eleanora Duse (1859-1924) was the leading Italian actress whom had few peers -- including men. She nearly single handily transformed Italian theater with her astonishingly sophisticated interpretation of roles in contrast to the more stilted acting generally seen in that day. By 1892-93 she was at the top of her career and perfomaing on the world stage throughout the European capitals acting in plays by contemporary French playwrights, Ibsen, and the works of her lover, Gabriele d'Annunzio.
She was frightfully intelligent, a ferocious reader and lived a life at times which was as tumultuous as any of her tragic charaters. Of her many roles, she often appeared in the always public favorite: "The Lady of the Camellias". She was very much considered on the level of the French actress Sarah Bernhardt (whom was fifteen years her senior), though they themselves had strikingly different personalities and styles.
To this day Eleanora Duse is considered one the worlds greatest actresses.
Without doubt, Sargent's painting is a deeply felt tribute to this strong willed, intelligent woman. The unfinished nature of the canvas puts it in line with the other uncommissioned personal portraits that he would do as personal gifts, but what is amazing is in the brevity of time he had to do it in.
Sargent had begged Duse to let him paint her and she finally agreed to just one sitting. On the day arranged, she arrived at noon. After only fifty-five minutes, she stood up and said, "Je vous souhaite de vivre mille ans et d'avoir la gloire et beaucoup d'enfants, mais au revoir,"  whereupon she walked out and he never saw her again.
often retell this story to friends for amusement, but what is so
is in the power of the painting that came together in such a brief
of time! It's mind boggling that like a muse, he has captured her
forever -- it's all there, every bit of it.
in Italy, 2002-2003