Bernhardt, Sarah

Bernhardt, Sarah
Oct. 22, 1844-Mar. 21, 1923
French actress


Born Henriette Rosine Bernard in Paris, 22 October 1844, the natural child of Edouard Bernard, a young law student from Le Havre, and Judith van Hard, a Dutch girl who later became a fashionable courtesan. Brought up by a Breton nurse; educated at Auteuil, then at the convent of Grandchamps, Versailles. Studied acting at the Conservatoire, Paris, where she was a prize-winning student, 1859-63. Engaged by the Comedie Francaise, 1863, but left after a quarrel. Son by the Belgian prince Henri de Ligne born 1864. Brilliant career at Theatre de l'Odeon, Paris, 1866-72. Reengaged by the Comedie Francaise, 1872; star of their first London visit in 1879; left after another quarrel, established her own troupe and made the first of many triumphal tours to America, 1880. Leased her own theatre, the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt, Paris, in 1900; acted there for the rest of her life. Chevalier, Legion d'Honneur, 1914. Died in Paris, 21 March 1923.

Sarah Bernhardt was a sculptor of most original talent. The hours she spent in the atelier were far more than a diversion from her demanding roles on the stage. From those sculptures that survive today, and others of which photographs exist, her work shows great skill, and at its most imaginative makes a fascinating contribution to the history of Art Nouveau.

So far 50 sculptures by Bernhardt have been traced from contemporary accounts and photographs, and the whereabouts of some 25 are known today. There must be many more, for she began to sculpt around 1872, and always kept a studio both in Paris and at her holiday home at Belle-Ile, where she spent two months every summer. Throughout her life she lived in an artistic milieu, and her two closest friends were the painters Georges Clairin and Louise Abbema (q.v.), who both made famous portraits of her in 1876 (portrait by Clairin in Musee du Petit Palais, Paris; that by Abbema untraced). It was natural that this highly gifted woman, who designed her own clothes and worked hand-in-hand with her stage designers, should be tempted to experiment with painting and sculpture; and so she did when in the early 1870s she found that — star of the Comedie Francaise though she was — she still had abundant time for what she saw as a possible second career.

Her earliest works tend to be unadventurous and correct. She took as teachers two staid, successful Salon sculptors, Mathieu Meusnier and Franchesci. She began by modelling portrait busts of her friends, which included Louise Abbema (Musee d'Orsay, Paris), the dramatist Sardou (Musee du Petit Palais, Paris) and Mlle Hocquigny (private collection, London), her old companion and ally when she ran a hospital during the siege of Paris in 1870. Soon she had the courage to enter her work at the Salon, where she exhibited regularly from 1875 to 1886.

In 1876 Bernhardt sent in her most ambitious work, a huge plaster group depicting an elderly Breton fisherwoman cradling her drowned grandson on her lap, which she called After the Storm. She took great pains with this work, even purchasing a skeleton and taking lessons in anatomy to achieve verisimilitude. Great was her pride when After the Storm won an honourable mention, and fame for the artist. She carved two smaller versions in marble, and sold the casting rights to the dealer Gambart for 10,000 francs. The size of the bronze edition is not known, but several casts have appeared on the market (see Sotheby's, New York, 26 May 1994, lot 47). The original plaster is untraced, and so are the two small marble versions, although one of these appeared in the sale of her collection in 1923.

It must be admitted that Bernhardt saw the publicity value of her alternative career. Postcards were sold of her working at her plasters, wearing a delightful "sculpting suit" she had specially designed. This consisted of a trouser suit tailored in white satin; at the neck was a huge jabot adorned with a posy of flowers, and her cuffs were trimmed with frills of lace. She worked late into the night, wearing an impromptu candelabrum attached to her head. She also painted, but although her pictures are pleasing they do not rise above amateur status, and lack the vivacity of her sculpture. About 20 works are known, somewhat in the style of Alfred Stevens and Gustave Dore, who both taught her. Most of the canvases date from the 1870s (e.g. Palm Seller, repr. My Double Life 1907, p.252; Return from Church, Holloway College, Surrey).

When Bernhardt first came to London with the Comedie Francaise in 1879, she took the opportunity of showing her sculpture to the British public. She hired a gallery in Piccadilly, and offered her guests champagne. The little show was a sensation: it was visited and admired by Gladstone, and Queen Victoria's son Prince Leopold bought a painting. All ten sculptures were sold. On her tour of America the following year she held an equally publicised show at the Union League Club in New York.

The year 1880 was a pivotal one: with one extraordinary work Bernhardt shed the art of the Salon for that of the Symbolists. She made a self-portrait representing herself as a sphinx holding an inkwell between her paws (see illustration). It is an amazing and compelling object. The symbolism is compounded by the bat's wings and mermaid's tail. One is reminded of Gustave Moreau, and it may also be relevant that Bernhardt had acted in Le Sphinx in 1874. It is her most important sculpture, and an edition of perhaps ten was cast by Thiebaut Freres. One example has a matching quill pen bearing her initials in diamonds (private collection, Paris). She gave examples to several admirers, including the Prince of Wales (Royal Collection, Sandringham House). In the following year she carved a most beautiful bas-relief bust of Ophelia, depicted life size. It demonstrates the skill that Bernhardt had acquired in handling marble. Ophelia's tresses are entwined with rippling waves in a harmonious pattern. Bernhardt gave this sculpture as a present to the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, a city that she loved. It is on permanent exhibition in the foyer.

In the 1890s Bernhardt was the chief patron of two of the greatest Art Nouveau artists, Alphonse Mucha and Rene Lalique. The latter designed jewellery for several of her plays, and is also said to have encouraged her to make some bronzes of sea plants with strange incrustations (two examples in private collection, Paris) — works of strange beauty. At the same time she made some bronzes of leaping fish that have extraordinary verve. Her sojourns at Belle-Ile no doubt provided her with models. A group of these marine bronzes was shown at the Exposition Universelle of 1900; at the same time Bernhardt was electrifying audiences every evening in her performance as Napoleon's son in L'Aiglon.

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