Sarah Bernhardt

18441923 | Paris, France

French actress, sculptor and painter.

Sarah Bernhardt, born Henriette Rosine Bernard, was not just a famous actress. She had many other artistic talents: she designed her own costumes, took part in stage direction, wrote plays, essays and novels, and was a sculptor and painter.
S. Bernhardt studied at the Conservatory in Paris and worked at the Comédie-Française in 1863. She then left the institution to later come back after a successful debut at the Odéon from 1866 to 1872. Her breakthrough role was Phèdre in 1873. As a young girl, her mother had insisted that she receive piano and drawing lessons. She created her first paintings and sculptures in the 1860s (Les Champs-Élysées en hiver [The Champs-Élysées in winter], Buste de femme [Bust of a woman]) and went on to study with sculptors Mathieu-Meusnier (1824-1896) and Jules Franceschi (1825-1893) in the 1870s. She was less proficient as a painter, but nonetheless took classes from Alfred Stevens (1823-1906), who painted at least five portraits of her, including a tondo of her painting a picture.

S. Bernhardt would exhibit at the Salon for over twenty years, beginning in 1874. Her works became increasingly influenced by Symbolism and Art Nouveau. In 1876, after having presented two marble busts, she submitted the group Après la tempête [After the storm], for which she received an honourable mention. She then sent the Salon several busts of her close relations, including one of her partner Louise Abbéma (1853-1927) in 1879. In 1880 she presented a large-format canvas, La Jeune Fille et la Mort [The young woman and Death] and in 1881 a marble bas-relief, Ophélie. She also donated a life-size bronze of the piece to the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. On the occasion of the 1900 World’s Fair she presented a marine-themed series of paperweights, flower boxes, vases and a fountain based on mouldings of real-life algae and fish.

S. Bernhardt, for whom Jean Cocteau coined the term “monstre sacré” (living legend) was faced with reactions from the critics, who reproached her for straying from the theatre. In her defence, Émile Zola wrote in Naturalisme au théâtre in 1881 (published in English as Naturalism on the Stage): “How odd that not content with finding her too thin and declaring her mad, they should now want to regulate her daily activities. … Let us pass a law immediately to prevent the accumulation of talent! … This is how things go in France: we do not accept that any individuality should escape from the art to which we have assigned them.” And yet her career as a sculptor proved to be inspirational: her contemporaries recognised both S. Bernhardt and Marcello (1836-1879) in the character of Félicia Ruys, the statue sculptor protagonist of Alphonse Daudet’s Le Nabab [The Nabob], published in 1877.
In 1879, upon travelling to London with the Comédie-Française troupe, S. Bernhardt took it into her own hands to organise an exhibition of her works at the William Russel Galleries. She presented sixteen canvases and fourteen sculptures, almost all of which were sold. She received the politician William Ewart Gladstone and Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, who bought one of her paintings. In 1880 a souvenir album with a catalogue of her works was published on the occasion of her exhibition at the Union League Club in New York.

S. Bernhardt twice tried her hand at monumental sculpture. The architect Charles Garnier commissioned her to create Le Chant (Song), a ronde-bosse sculpture for the facade of the Monte-Carlo casino (inaugurated in 1881), designed as a sister piece to Gustave Doré’s (1832-1883) La Danse. She also took part in a competition organised by the Seine departmental council for a monument commemorating the defence of Paris in 1870.
In addition to busts and portraits of her friends, as well as a death mask of her husband Jacques Damala, she painted and sculpted several self-portraits, sometimes inspired by her roles. In 1876 she depicted herself as La Fille de Roland; in 1878 she painted herself as Joan of Arc and in La Dormeuse [The sleeper]; and in 1883 as Pierrot, whom she was playing at the time in a pantomime at the Trocadéro theatre. In 1880 she was a sphinx in her Encrier fantastique [Magical inkwell]. The creature’s shoulder pads are shaped as Tragedy and Comedy, and the main motif of the inkwell is a reminder of her role in Octave Feuillet’s Le Sphinx in 1873 and 1880. In 1893 she became the director of the Théâtre de la Renaissance and in 1899 of the Theâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, a position she held until her death in 1923. While S. Bernhardt achieved world fame as an actor, patron and director, her painted and sculpted work remains little known to this day. In 2011 her Autoportrait en chimère [Self-portrait as a chimaera, c. 1876] was presented at the exhibition Sculpture’Elles. Les sculpteurs femmes du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours at the Musée des Années Trente in Boulogne-Billancourt.

Mathilde Leïchlé

Translated from French by Lucy Pons.

Publication made in partnership with musée d’Orsay.
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions

© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
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