A century ago on March 26, 1923, Sarah Bernhardt died, yet her reputation as the archetypal modern actress lives on. She may in fact be the first actress that I ever heard of. When one of my sisters threw a child’s tantrum, she was teased by our father for “playing Sarah Bernhardt.” Now Paris’s Petit Palais, whose permanent collection includes works of and by Bernhardt, marks the centennial of the actress’s death with an absorbing exhibition, “Sarah Bernhardt: The Woman Who Created the Star.”1

Born on October 22, 1844, Sarah was steered to the stage when the duc de Morny, Napoleon III’s half-brother, was impressed enough by her temper to tell her mother that the girl belonged in the Paris Conservatory—hence, her association with tantrums. Acting, however, was not Sarah’s first choice. The six years she spent as a child at a convent near Versailles made her want to be a nun, and later she planned to be a painter or sculptor. She sculpted throughout her life, and with great skill, as we see in the exhibition, which features her bronze Le Fou et la mort (The Madman and Death, 1877), based on Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse (the play that inspired Verdi’s Rigoletto), and bronze castings of seaweed and seashells that she gathered from the Breton beaches near her château. 

Etienne Carjat, Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Doña Maria de Neubourg in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, 1872, Photography, Musée Carnavalet, Paris, France. © Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet - Histoire de Paris.

Despite her naturally theatrical temperament, Sarah had to work hard at her profession. Her voice, later celebrated, was weak by nature and her body frail, leaving her to assume she would die young. A wild will drove her, and, after years of struggle, she became renowned in France and abroad. She acted every year in England and made many tours across the United States, bringing her French repertoire to the American heartland as well as to cosmopolitan cities. Her popularity and extensive travel earned her the nickname the “railroad muse.” She even continued acting after losing her entire right leg to infection in 1915. 

Sarah’s mother was Jewish and Dutch. Both her mother and her aunt were courtesans, and Sarah inherited this talent to seduce and adapted it for the stage. At the time, actresses were often considered prostitutes (Sarah herself was addressed as such by the novelist George Sand). The exhibition opens with three striking early photographs of Sarah by Félix Nadar (the earliest is dated 1859). A hint of the volcanic nature that was to explode onstage was already apparent in the model’s sultry, sulky, and sensual face. Sarah knew the advantages of publicity as well as any celebrity today. To that end, she revealed to the world that she slept in a mahogany coffin, and she lent herself to advertisements for all kinds of products, from soap to rice powder to sardines.

Georges Clairin, Portrait de Sarah Bernhardt, 1876, Oil on canvas, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France. © Paris Musées / Petit Palais.

She enjoyed good and sometimes even amorous relations with painters and photographers. Georges Clairin, Gustave Doré, and Louise Abbéma all saw her as a colleague as well as a muse. Indeed, Sarah was an “artist among artists,” to quote the exhibition’s section on her work as a painter and sculptor. Clairin’s Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (1876), donated by her son to the Petit Palais upon her death, exquisitely captures her personality and celebrity. Clairin also painted Sarah in her role as Doña Maria de Neubourg in Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas at the Comédie-Française in 1879. An anonymous photographer shows Sarah and Clairin together, the actress animated, the painter observant. Abbéma’s Sarah Bernhardt and Louise Abbéma on the Lake in the Bois de Boulogne (1883) and Lunching in the Greenhouse (1887) show a vivacious red-haired Sarah, while the painter herself dons the masculine dress and countenance Sarah admired. In Abbéma’s Sarah Bernhardt (1885), the actress looks more austere, her prominent nose marked in profile. We also see a bronze cast of the two women’s hands clasped together in a loving hold, made in 1875.

Sarah’s great discovery in the fine arts was Alfons Mucha, unknown in 1894 when he designed the poster for Sarah’s production of Victorien Sardou’s Gismonda. Art Nouveau made a perfect match for Sarah, and Mucha went on to design posters for her other productions in this style, including the La Dame aux Camélias (Camille) (1896), Alfred de Musset’s 1899 Lorenzaccio, and her controversial Hamlet of the same year. Max Beerbohm panned her performance of the male role, saying that her Hamlet was “very grande dame,” but her friend and champion Maurice Baring praised her for capturing what he believed to be the Hamlet that Shakespeare intended. In addition to Hamlet, Sarah played men in Lorenzaccio and Edmond Rostand’s 1900 hit L’Aiglon, in which she starred as Napoleon II. In the latter, she crossed the age barrier as well, playing the youthful Napoleon II when she herself was fifty-six. She claimed male roles had more depth than female parts, but her greatest achievement was in the titular role of Jean Racine’s Phèdre.

Alfons Mucha, Lorenzaccio, 1899, Color lithography, Musée Carnavalet, Paris, France. © Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet - Histoire de Paris.

Maurice Baring wrote in his 1933 biography of Sarah Bernhardt that her love life, her opinions as a Dreyfusard and a French patriot, and even her work as a sculptress were of no importance in comparison to her acting. For Baring, “no actress or actor . . . made greater play with the eyes,” adding that it was the ensemble of movements, looks, speech, hair, body, and spirit that made her so remarkable. The exhibition shows clips from films she made in the last twenty years of her life, including an excerpt from her 1912 Queen Elizabeth, directed by Louis Mercanton, which saw big success in the United States. It also features a voice recording that Baring mourned as a “poor ghost” of the extraordinary actress. We can only imagine Sarah Bernhardt’s true magic onstage, but this entertaining exhibition captures at least some semblance of her place in the world of theater.

  1.   “Sarah Bernhardt: The Woman Who Created the Star” opened at the Petit Palais, Paris, on April 14, 2023, and remains on view through August 27.

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