Very few names in the theater are as legendary as that of Sarah Bernhardt, nicknamed “The Divine Sarah” by her legions of admirers. Born in 1844 to a high-powered French courtesan, she first started acting while in boarding school and continued to pursue acting on the advice of family friend Charles de Morny, Duke of Morny–the half brother of Emperor Napoleon III (quite a contact!).
Her rise to fame was swift and suitably dramatic for an actress who loved romanticism and grand gestures. Studies at the Paris Conservatory lead to joining the Comédie Française, which she left for less prestigious theaters after butting heads with another actress. While continuing to make a name for herself she befriended great writers, screenwriters and aristocrats, taking some as her lovers. At age 20 she gave birth to her only child, Maurice, rumored to be the son of Belgian Prince Henri de Ligne.
By the 1870s Bernhardt was being praised as “an incomparable artist” for her leading roles in plays like Ruy Blas by Dumas. Making a triumphant return to the Comédie Française, she took on numbers of challenging roles and was praised by critics and writers around the world. In the 1880s and ’90s she was embarking on world tours, and her theater roles ran the gamut from Joan of Arc to Cleopatra. Soon she was adding “artistic director” to her long list of accomplishments and running her own theater.
The 20th century saw more Bernhardt tours and a string of “farewell tours” in the 1900s–the mark of a true legend. She also appeared in films, starting with Le Duel d’Hamlet for the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition, although many agreed the magic of her acting was diminished without being accompanied by her “golden voice.” She continued acting in her theater until the early 1920s, passing away in 1923 at age 78.
So that’s a very (very) quick overview of the life of Sarah Bernhardt. While you might assume I wanted to focus a bit more on her silent film career, I actually wanted to draw some attention to one of her other amazing skills: sculpting. I just happened to stumble across some photos of her work, and I must share them.
Bernhardt started sculpting in 1869 while at the Comédie Française and it quickly became one of her biggest passions. Taught by academic Mathieu-Meusnier, Bernhardt arguably became a master of the craft, exhibiting works in Paris, London, and New York. Feast your eyes on her 1880 The Death of Ophelia, probably her greatest work:
Can you see why it stopped me in my tracks while browsing Twitter?
The detail on the flowers and hair alone…!
And here is an exquisite funeral portrait of her husband Jacques Damala, who passed away in 1889:
And at only 30 inches high, her 1876 After the Storm has lots of loving details–look at the delicate netting!
Bernhardt could even have a Gothic edge if she wanted to. Her Self-Portrait as a Chimera, a bronze inkwell from 1880, was apparently inspired by her role in the play The Sphinx. What self-described edgy teen obsessed with “aesthetics” wouldn’t love this?! I ask of you!
Since sculpting was generally a male pursuit at the time, Bernhardt adopted more “masculine” clothes in her studio, usually silk trousers and a satin blouse. She was sometimes criticized in the press for not staying in her lane as an actress, although she was defended by writer Emile Zola, who wrote sarcastically: “…She is reproached for not having stuck to dramatic art…to have taken up sculpture, painting, heaven knows what else! How droll! Not content with finding her thin, or declaring her mad, they want to regulate her daily activities. One is freer in prison.”
All in all, Sarah Bernhardt created about 50 sculptures, about half of which are known to survive. So the next time you’re at an art museum, maybe do a little searching and see if they’re lucky enough to have an original Bernhardt in their collection!