Out of 400 works shown at Petit Palais in the exhibition “Sarah Bernhardt, and the woman created the star”, there must be at least 200 portraits of hers in oil, watercolor, photographs and sculpture including a number of self portraits and works done by her lifelong companion Louise Abbéma. I had never realized what a good artist the actress was and how widely celebrated she had been. The Théâtre de la Ville place du Châtelet was called Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt from 1899 until 1940 when the Nazis took her name away because of its Jewish conotation. She ended her life on Belle-île, in Southern Brittany, and 40 000 people followed her funeral from Eglise Saint François de Sales, in the 17 th, to Père Lachaise, with many horse drawn carriages carrying flowers. The highlight of the show is, as far I am concerned, the reconstitution of her studio with all her self portraits in a very dramatic scenography by Véronique Dollfus.
Both Sarah Bernhardt’s mother and aunt (half Dutch and Jewish) were popular and successful courtesans in Paris and one of their patrons, the Duc de Morny (Napoleon III’s half brother), encouraged Sarah (1844-1923), who was raised in Quimperlé and in Versailles, to enter the Conservatoire at 19. Her first major role was at Théâtre de l’Odéon in 1869 when she played “Le Passant” by François Coppée, a man’s part, later played by Robert de Montesquiou. She was 25. She had not been accepted at the Comédie Française when she applied but was called back in 1875, after her stage success in Victor Hugo’s “Ruy Blas”. This is also the year when she built her hotel particulier on rue Fortuny, in the fashionable 17 th arrondissement.
She surrounded herself with painters and Georges Clairin did a lascivious portrait of her in 1876, while Louise Abbéma’s, her long time companion, was more formal. Nadar photographed her and she befriended Alfred Stevens, Gustave Doré, the Goncourt brothers, Edmond Rostand who praised her professionalism on stage and invited her to his house “Arnaga” in Cambo-les-Bains. Also Jean Cocteau and Pierre Loti and Oscar Wilde who welcomed her in Folkestone when she toured with the Comédie Française. Nicknamed “The Divine” she fascinated spectators even in the US where she acted in French, performing 156 times in fifty cities. She traveled in a special Pullman train especially designed for her. She was the first woman to play Hamlet and acted as the young l’Aiglon, written for her, when she was already 56…
She was very interested in the decorative arts and spent endless hours furnishing her house and then her apartment. One of her 1875 mirrors is lent by galerie Steinitz. Mostly, she was a great sculptor and painter and many of her self portraits are assembled in the center of the show. A very pretty portrait by Marie Besson is made on porcelain in 1885. It is lent by Christophe de Mirambet who seems to be a large collector of her’s. The dresses she wore are more disappointing.
The main room is devoted to her acting parts with some posters by Mucha who was often asked to publicize her plays and Eugène Grasset who did a tantalizing Jeanne d’Arc in 1889. Another wall is covered with adds that she did for all kinds of products. There are also a number of sounds to listen to and films including an interview of Sacha Guitry. When she went to he US, she made sure to meet Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph, who recorded her voice in a studio, on engraved wax cylinders.
She ended her life in Belle-Ile sculpting in bronze a superb “Wave” and lived for many years with only one (left) leg, one lung and one kidney. She was a superlative woman.
Images of her funeral are grandiose with five large horse driven carriages carrying flowers on rue de Rivoli.
The exhibition is not as extravagant as the actress was, making her alligator drink champagne to death or lying down in a coffin, collecting bats and wild animals. The large number of portraits seems a little tiresome at times. But it is worth visiting just to realize that without Instagram and Facebook, stars were already quite celebrated in the 19 th century.
Until August 27, at Petit Palais
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