Sarah Bernhardt, the Artist

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Sarah Bernhardt, the Artist
Sarah Bernhardt, 1844-1923, was the greatest actress of the 19th century. She was the theater’s Meryl Streep backed with a publicity machine rivaling Madonna’s. She was in fact a primadonna, the first lady of the stage. With her sold-out performances, every major playwright longed to write for her. Provocatively nicknamed the “8th Wonder of the World”, emperors took a knee before her; aristocrats gave her jewels. She was ruthlessly ambitious, with an entourage of fans, friends and lovers trailing her every move. Bernhardt had a taste for the bizarre. She lived among a menagerie of wild animals and circulated a photo of herself sleeping in a satin-lined coffin. Although known for her emotional stage presence, Sarah Bernhardt is lesser known for her artwork, which as equally outstanding. Young Girl and Death by Sarah Bernhardt. (C) the Wellcome Collection In 1869, the sculptor Roland Mathieu-Meusnier was commissioned to sculpt Bernhardt’s likeness. The actress peppered the sculptor with so many questions and so much constructive criticism, that he asked her why she didn’t take up sculpting herself. If Mathieu-Meusnier could be her teacher, Bernhardt enthusiastically said yes. That evening she ran home and shook her sleepy aunt awake to sculpt her image into a medallion, which she proudly showed her mentor the next day. Mathieu-Meusnier was a popular sculptor who specialized in allegory and monument work. He thought that Bernhardt’s sensuous hands and long tapering fingers were intended to “caress works of art.” Like her teacher, Sarah also produced academic, allegorical works. She devoted every spare moment to studying and practicing the art. Her progress was remarkably rapid and she was highly successful at sculpting. Bernhardt had a pedestrian taste in art. She was active in Paris at the heyday of the Impressionists yet had no interest in their paintings; instead, she liked the pretty postcard images by her close friend Louise Abbéma. Georges Clairin, who fawningly painted Bernhardt in flattering poses, was also a fixture in Sarah Bernhardt’s ‘court.’ Like nobility, Bernhardt was driven every morning by horse and carriage to her studio at 11 Boulevard de Clichy. In the interior of her Pigalle studio, Bernhardt created a bohemian atmosphere. Her large studio was a mismatched jumble of objets d’art. Abbéma and Clairin painted murals in her foyer, dining room and bedroom ceiling depicting roles she had played on the stage. Bust of Victorien Sardou by Sarah Bernhardt (C) Wikimedia Commons

Lead photo credit : Sarah Bernhardt in the studio with her self-image bust (C) Wikimedia commons

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.


  • David Mulligan
    2021-09-14 01:43:15
    David Mulligan
    Truly fascinating information. I was never aware of this aspect of this woman's life. Thank you for enlightening me.


  • maria medina
    2021-09-13 08:17:38
    maria medina
    I love all your articles what a great job you are all doing at Bonjour Paris, thanks for all you do. I would like to continue seeing good restaurants but no too too expensive. Good food


  • Catharine Huxter
    2021-09-13 06:43:55
    Catharine Huxter
    I love learning new things and this article was absolutely fascinating to me. Thank you so much for sharing with all of us.


  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2021-09-12 05:05:09
    Marilyn Brouwer
    As always beautifully researched and fascinating article. Thanks Hazel


  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2021-09-11 07:50:54
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Superb, Hazel! Thank you so much for capturing this little-known facet of Sarah B's creativity. She was an amazing women.