The exhibition proposed by the Petit Palais museum in Paris until August 27, 2023 presents through some 400 pieces the life of the immense French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt.

There is a kind of poetic justice in that, since the Petit Palais is the proud owner of the most beautiful portrait of the artist, painted by Georges Clairin, since its donation in 1923 by the son of the one Cocteau had baptized “the Sacred Monster”.

Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt by Georges Clairin – 1876. The portrait is as unusual as its subject: the languid pose and the frank, direct but nevertheless languorous gaze illustrate a woman free from all social convention. The spiral movement of the dress is typical of Sarah Bernhardt

Shadow and light share the life of this extraordinary woman who is often presented as the first international star and who died exactly one century ago.

The dark side that presides over the destiny of Sarah Bernhardt is immense and probably explains the thirst for light that will have guided the unhappy child: her date of birth is uncertain, the identity of her father even more so and the lack of love from her mother who prefers her little sister darken her childhood. Her autobiography “My Double Life” does not offer more keys: a little bit of a liar, a little bit of a mythomaniac, Sarah Bernhardt will always have cultivated doubt and buried her life under mysteries.

According to her many biographers, she was born in July or September or October 1844. Or even in 1843 or 1841. Her birth certificate was burned with the national archives of the Paris town hall in 1871. According to the documents she submits in order to obtain the French Legion of Honor (and which do not fool anyone), her date of birth is “officially” established as October 22, 1844. Even if her own death certificate contradicts it and places her date of birth on September 25, 1944. Well.

Her place of birth is not known (Ecole-de-Médecine street, Saint-Honoré street or la Michodière street in Paris) and her first names either (Henriette Marie Sarah or Henriette Rosine or Rosine Sarah).

The identity of her father has been debated for a long time – did she know it herself – and the names of Edouard Bernhardt and Paul Morel have often been mentioned. Edouard Viel, a notable who has been in prison for financial embezzlement, finally appears, according to recent studies, to be the father of the great actress.

Her mother is a courtesan. She chooses the Parisian life by abandoning Sarah to a nanny in Brittany and then to a convent where the young girl becomes a Catholic mystic who plans to become a nun. Sarah eventually leaves the convent and joins her mother and her aunt – also a courtesan.

At the age of 16, she enters the Conservatoire (the conservatory where students can study dance, drama and music), thanks to the support of Morny – the half-brother of Napoleon III – who frequents her mother’s salon.

She leaves the Conservatory in 1862.

Sarah, still unknown, photographed by Nadar – Circa 1859

The path may seem improbable from the convent to the Conservatory to the alcoves, yet the morality police count Sarah among the Parisian courtesans.

Register called “courtesans” – 1861-1876. Sarah was apparently very popular with elderly gentlemen

“Mary Magdalene” by Alfred Stevens (1887), who made several portraits of Sarah Bernhardt. One can wonder if the figure of Mary Magdalene echoes the sulphurous past of the actress

She enters the prestigious Comédie-Française Theatre and is fired in 1866 for having slapped a colleague whose attitude was unacceptable.

She signs with the Odéon Theatre. She reveals herself in 1869 in “Le Passant” by François Coppée, where she plays a transvestite and transforms the theatre into a military hospital in 1870 during the siege of Paris by the Prussians. She triumphs in this same theatre in 1872 in “Ruy Blas” and the author of the play, Victor Hugo, nicknames her the “Golden Voice”.

Her acting is physical and she fully lives each of her roles.

Sarah Bernhardt in “Ruy Blas” by Victor Hugo

Corset and crowns worn by Sarah Bernhardt in “Ruy Blas”

Faced with such success, the Comédie-Française Theatre calls her back and she is named a society member in 1875. She nevertheless resigns in 1880. She sets up her own company and tours the world, alternating between tours and performances in Paris. She triumphs on five continents.

Sarah in Dallas

She charters a Pullman train for her troupe in the United States, she enjoys champagne in a hot air balloon in Paris.

Sarah caricatured on the hot air balloon, so identifiable with her “S” body line

She installs a padded coffin in her house, sleeps there (supposedly) and has herself (more certainly) photographed there.

Her eccentricities feed his legend. Sarah Bernhardt stages each of her movements because she understands the impact of advertising. A businesswoman (many will criticize her for her business mindset), she sells her image, whether it’s on postcards or ads.

She hires Alfons Mucha – the one who will have succeeded in turning ad into art – who draws her for six seasons, magnificent and life-size.

She never ceases to be photographed – by Nadar in particular and to be painted – by her two friends Georges Clairin and Louise Abbéma in particular.

“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare

“La Dame aux Camélias” by Alexandre Dumas fils

“Théodora” by Victorien Sardou

Sarah Bernhardt by Louise Abbéma – Circa 1883

Sarah Bernhardt by Georges Clairin – Circa 1876

Sarah Bernhardt by Georges Rochegrosse – Circa 1880

Sarah Bernhardt and Louise Abbéma on the lake in the Bois de Boulogne – Louise Abbéma – 1883. Louise Abbéma meets Sarah Bernhardt in the early 1870s when she begins her career as a painter. She immediately falls under Sarah’s spell and this is probably the beginning of a romantic relationship with the actress, of whom Louise will remain a close friend throughout her life. The symbolism of black and white, shadow and light punctuates this large painting

Her charisma – indisputable – is however far from the standards of her time. She is called the “Blonde Negress” because of her wild and curly hair and her thinness exposes her to jokes and caricatures. She will always assume her physical characteristics and even accentuate them: her hair will often be left floating and her thinness will be enhanced by her clothes and her spiral movements. 

“Izeyl” by Armand Sylvestre and Eugène Morand

Sarah Bernhardt in the role of dona Maria de Neubourg in “Ruy Blas” by Victor Hugo – Georges Clairin – 1879. The actress resumes in 1879 at the Comédie-Française Theatre the role which gave her a triumph at the Odéon Theatre seven years earlier. Georges Clairin, who was her lover and who is a faithful friend, represents Sarah here in the 1879 production, in a dress which highlights her slender figure and a small crown which is reminiscent of the little crown that had amazed Paris in 1872

One understands why she becomes the muse of the Art Nouveau movement. She is called “The Divine”, “The Empress of Theatre” or “The Scandalous”. Oscar Wilde throws lilies under her feet and Cocteau invents the expression “Sacred Monster” for her. Her repertoire is limitless: she will play Dumas, Wilde, Sardou, Hugo, Shakespeare, Racine, Rostand and so many others. She takes over the management of the Renaissance Theatre then that of the Nations Theatre which is renamed “Sarah-Bernhardt Theatre”. She writes a few plays and plays the roles of young men when she is over fifty.

“Pierrot Assassin” by Jean Richepin

“Cléopâtre” by Victorien Sardou and Emile Moreau

“Jeanne d’Arc” by Jules Barbier

“L’Aiglon” by Edmond Rostand

“La Princesse Lointaine” by Edmond Rostand

The headdress from “La Princesse Lointaine” by Edmond Rostand (reconstitution)

“Froufrou” by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy

The lovers will be numerous, yet none will leave a deep imprint on this independent, free, perhaps selfish woman in love with her art. Belle-Ile, a French remote island, her chosen land beaten by the winds where she bought a fort, a villa and then a manor, is as indomitable as she is.

“Sarah Bernhardt dans son jardin de Belle-Ile-en-Mer” – Georges Clairin – 1919

The cinema intrigues her and she plays from 1900 in “Le Duel d’Hamlet” for the Paris Universal Exhibition, until the day before her death in the unfinished “La Voyante” film in 1923. Her fame as a film actress goes beyond French borders, like her fame as a theater actress. Her “Golden Voice” does not shine through during the silent era of course, but her very strong gestures inherited from the theater work wonders on film. Unlike the many detractors of cinematography who see it as popular entertainment without the theatre’s prestige, Sarah Bernhardt quickly understands the impact of this new medium. She will have her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In addition to theater and cinema, she successfully exercises her talent for painting and sculpture.

Sarah Bernhardt as a sculptor in 1877

“Ophélia” by Sarah Bernhardt – Circa 1881

“Funeral portrait of Jacques Damala” by Sarah Bernhardt – Circa 1889. Jacques Damala was the furtive husband of Sarah Bernhardt. The happiness was short-lived, Damala being addicted to morphine. The passion will take time to die out in the heart of the actress. “Even now that I am a limping old woman, it is with this bastard that I want to make love”

At the height of her art, she is decorated with the Legion of Honor in 1914 for having spread the French language throughout the world – and for having set up a military hospital during the war against Prussia in 1871.

A woman of convictions and public passions, campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty and women’s right to vote, she defends Louise Michel during the Commune episode and Emile Zola at the height of the Dreyfus Affair.

Letter from Sarah to Emile Zola after the publication of “J’Accuse”

She develops gangrene of the knee and has her leg amputated in 1915. It doesn’t matter, she plays on stage or goes to support the soldiers on the battlefield in a wheelchair.

She dies at home in 1923 and bequeathes her property to her beloved son Maurice, whom she had after a love affair with the Prince of Ligne. The immense complicity between the mother and the son will know only a storm of a few months, that of the Dreyfus affair: he is irremediably anti-Semitic. He will die five years after her and will be buried alongside her.

Maurice Bernhardt

How many efforts strained towards the light will have been deployed by the thin and unloved child. She will have succeeded, in the words of the French writer Colette, in “attracting up to the gates of death”.

May 5, 2023