This extraordinary portrait shows one of the most celebrated dancers of the nineteenth-century, Céleste Elliott, known as Madame Céleste, in a role from the American playwright William Bayle Bernard’s St Mary’s Eve: A Solway Story. Madame Céleste had a highly successful career as a dancer and melodramatic performer in both Britain and the United States; her fame in the US was only matched by that of Fanny Kemble and Jenny Lind. This beautifully observed, dynamic portrait was part of a sequence of images Alfred Edward Chalon made of famous performers in London during the 1820s and 1830s; as a major international celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, Madame Céleste’s image was widely known and the present drawing was published as a popular lithograph in 1838.
Born Céleste Céline in Paris, probably in around 1810, she was enrolled as a pupil of the Paris conservatory where she performed with François-Joseph Talma and Madame Pasta. Her first professional appearance was in 1827 at the Bowery Theatre in New York, in which she danced a pas seul with a Parisian dance troupe. During her visit to the United States, Céleste also performed in small ballets in theatres on the east coast. In 1828 she married Henry Elliott of Baltimore, with whom she had a daughter, born in 1829. Elliott died soon after their marriage. In 1830 Madame Céleste arrived in Liverpool from New Orleans, and made her début in England as Fenella, the wronged mute sister of the Neapolitan fisherman hero, Masaniello, in Auber's opera of that name. Mute parts enabled Céleste to display her brilliant skills as a versatile and expressive mime artist, and also conveniently concealed her always halting command of the English language.
In her second tour to the United States, from 1834 to 1837, she became a theatrical sensation and box-office star. In America she became famous for her pantomimic roles in plays such as The Wizard Skiff, or, The Tongueless Pirate Boy, The Wept of the Wish-Ton-Wish (adapted from Fenimore Cooper's novel), and The Dumb Brigand as well as for her prowess as a dancer in the ballet of La Bayadère. Writing after her death, in 1882, the Gentleman’s Magazine noted:
‘It would be a difficult matter at the present juncture to realise the enthusiasm which Celeste’s acting evoked in those early days throughout the New World. No other actress was ever more popularly hailed there, and the memory of none ever remained so long green in the hearts of the American people. Cheered to the echo of the soldiery, affectionately greeted by the populace, and unanimously elected a Free Citizen of the States, her cup of joy was surely full to overflowing. In Kentucky not a seat remained untaken for several weeks before her advertised appearance. Moreover, when she reached Washington, General Jackson politely insisted upon introducing her to the members of the Cabinet, that she might receive the congratulations due to one who had been so recently honoured with the freedom of the States.’