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If Sarah Bernhardt were around today, she would be a major social media influencer and brand partnership superstar. Her work as an actress (from the 1870s to 1923) wowed audiences throughout the world and her acting success, personal life, artistic skills, wardrobe and eccentricity would be Instagram, YouTube and other social media site and brand promotion worthy. She would always be invited to the New York Met Gala and be a top red carpet performer. Bernhardt worked hard on self-promotion and she was the first star to gain international fame – the Paris Hilton before Paris and the Madonna before Madonna.
Sarah Bernhardt: And the Woman Created the Star is a show at the Petit Palais that marks the centennial of her death. It focuses not only on her skills as an actress but how she made herself a worldwide legend in a time where promotion outlets consisted of newspapers, posters, postcards and print advertising. She understood the importance of publicity by disseminating her image and worked with multiple famous friends who painted, drew, photographed, sculptured and wrote about her lifestyle that inspired fans and ultimately made her a star.
Bernhardt’s life story was grand and the exhibit focuses on key elements of her career and personal life. (Wikipedia’s post is 39 pages long, not counting several pages of references.) A beautiful woman with long curly hair, she had a strong temperament that sometimes clashed with theatre administrators until her career raced past anyone else’s control.
As a young child, she was neglected by her mother who was a successful Paris courtesan but Bernhardt impressed well connected influencers who encouraged her to become an actress and supported her throughout her career. In 1860, she was accepted into the exclusive Conservatory to study acting and was then hired in 1862 by the Comédie Française where she ultimately was fired because of her strong will in an argument with the principal actress. Her first theatrical success was in 1869 at the Théâtre de l’Odéon where she played a transvestite in François Coppée’s Le Passant. Her acting career was launched by 1872 when she played the queen in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas.
The Comédie Française rehired her because of her popularity and talent but she continued to have issues with theater management. For the next eight years the press loved writing about her escapades and theatrical successes. She lived surrounded by painters including Gustave Doré, Georges Clarin, Louise Abbéma and sculptor Mathieu-Meusnier. Writer friends included Victor Hugo and Edmond Rostand, and musicians and composers also joined her squad. She had many theatrical successes but was often bored and complained to theater management.
It was during this time that she learned how to paint from artist friends and sculpt from Mathieu-Meusnier. She was considered a talent and exhibited sculptures regularly at the Paris Salon and sold much of her work. She continued to sculpt and do bronze work throughout her life and the exhibit has several sculptures, bronzes and paintings that show off her talent. Rodin dismissed her sculptures as “old fashioned tripe,” but that’s from a man who never appreciated a woman’s sculpting talent. Just ask Camille Claudel.
Her homes were mansions in the fashionable parts of Paris and southern Brittany and the décor was extravagant. She displayed works from her artist friends and artwork she collected around the world, especially Western art from her many tours in the U.S. and Australia. She had a penchant for the bizarre (bats, snakes, skeletons) and loved exotic animals as pets, including a lion cub and several turtles. And she always had large, elegant dogs surrounding her. Journalists, photographers and writers often showcased the décor and animals which helped build her image.
The exhibit focuses on her acting career but also includes the artwork, posters, writing and paintings that helped make her famous, including the portrait painted by her friend Georges Clairin that was popular at the 1876 Salon. The painting shows off her long, slim figure dressed in a white nightgown, along with her dog. It is one of the many stunning paintings in the exhibit.
Bernhardt was often unsatisfied with roles she was assigned at the Comédie Française and not shy about saying so. She decided to resign in 1880 after she returned from a triumphant tour in London and was assigned what she considered a mediocre play in which she didn’t want to perform. Typical Bernhardt, she sent a copy of her resignation letter to the press along with theater management.
She then focused on successful international tours that took her to five continents. They often got her out of financial trouble while expanding her world fame. Her American tour of 1880 – 1881 took her to 50 cities with over 150 performances. She toured not only around France but in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Monte Carlo, Québec, Buenos Aires, Budapest and was welcomed in many cities in between. She traveled in a personal Pullman train with over the top décor and support staff. The exhibit has a multimedia space which lets visitors sit in a train cabin and learn many aspects about the tours.
Several iconic roles that Bernhardt played are highlighted in one room and include costumes and posters advertising the shows. From Shakespeare’s Hamlet (she played Hamlet) to Alexandre Dumas fils who wrote La Dame aux Camélias to Victorien Sardou’s tailor-made plays such as Cleopatra, Théodora and Tosca, the sense of drama can be felt. Costumes are rich with beading, color and layers and the posters are an art form themselves. “The Divine Sarah,” as she was called, was famous for her death scenes, and her style of combined gesture, voice and grand staging made her the first international star in history.
She also did many brand partnerships to advertise everyday consumer products which spread her image further. LU biscuits, rice powder, sardines, mineral water, even Moët & Chandon champagne were products that brought her face and name to the masses.
Even the business of theater was an area in which Bernhardt was energetically engaged. She was the director of the Théâtre de la Renaissance throughout most of the 1890s and bought the Théâtre des Nations on the Place du Châtelet in Paris. She gave the theater her name and upon her death it was redesigned and ultimately named Théâtre de la Ville. She also generously supported the Comédie Française when it was in financial trouble.
Bernhardt’s strong will and lifestyle made her life complex. She had her only child, son Maurice, when she was 20; had many lovers throughout her life, often with her leading men; had one marriage which lasted six months; was one of the first women in silent films and her film Queen Elizabeth helped launch Paramount Studios and Hollywood’s leading role in movie production; was a vegan who avoided dairy, eggs and meat preferring a diet of cereal, fruit, nuts and vegetables; and even went bankrupt a few times. She was always there for her friends, the theater industry and civically supported France in two wars including turning the Odéon Theatre into a soldier’s hospital during the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War.
When she died in 1923, her funeral was a two-day affair. Her religious mass was held one day and the next day 30,000 people attended the funeral. The superstar event was the enormous crowd of admirers who followed her flower-adorned casket to Père-Lachaise Cemetery. The event was recorded by news outlets and shown around the world.
Bernhardt set the stage for today’s global collabs and influencers. She connected with her audience and was seen as authentic and inspirational. She was strong willed, ran her career and life as she wanted and collaborated with influencers who would grow her image throughout the world. But she was also a kind woman who helped her country of France and people in difficult times. She had many friends (and lovers) but her authenticity grew her followers throughout the world. In the end, her influence was immense and can be an inspiration for today’s influencers, even Dojo Cat and Rihanna. Anyone interested in how global influence is done should see this exhibit.
Lead photo credit : Félix Tournachon dit Nadar, Sarah Bernhardt chez elle, c 1890, épreuve sur papier albuminé, Petit Palais, musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, France © Paris Musées / Petit Palais