The Star Influence of Sarah Bernhardt

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The Star Influence of Sarah Bernhardt
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. Félix Tournachon dit Nadar, Sarah Bernhardt drapée de blanc, vers 1859, épreuve sur papier albuminé, BnF, département des Estampes et de la photographie, Paris, France © BnF 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. Petit Palais by Mark B. Schlemmer/ Flickr 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. W.& D. Downey, Sarah Bernhardt en gros plan, 1902, carte album, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, département des Arts du spectacle © BnF 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.

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

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Intrigued by France since her first stroll along the Seine, Martha and her husband often travel to Paris to explore the city and beyond. She lives part-time on the Île de la Cité and part-time in the San Francisco Bay Area, delighting in its strong Francophone and French culture community. She was a high-tech public relations executive and currently runs a non-profit continuing education organization. She also works as the San Francisco ambassador for France Today magazine.


  • Monique Van Damme
    2023-05-14 11:45:38
    Monique Van Damme
    Beautiful article but the description of one of my favorite paintings by Clarin which is housed at the Petit Palais says there are 2 dogs in the painting. Where is the 2nd? Where's Waldo??? And what are the dates of the exposition?


    • Martha Sessums
      2023-05-15 10:52:25
      Martha Sessums
      Hi Monique, I stand corrected. There is only one dog in the painting. Waldo is peeking out from under the pillow though. :-) And exhibit is on until August 27, 2023.