Entrance to Sarah Bernhardt Exhibition Woman Created the Star Et la femme crea la star
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Sarah Bernhardt – Woman Created the Star (Et la femme créa la star )

Sarah Bernhardt’s portrait by Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1879
Sarah Bernhardt’s portrait by Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1879

The artist, Sarah Bernhardt’s life knew no limits. There was no frontier she could not conquer during her 79 springtimes on earth. She was an emblematic figure, the “divine Sarah”, the “holy monster”, the “golden voice”. Miss Bernhardt (1844-1923) created the star that she was. She was the influencer of the epoque. This icon’s face appeared on major brand beauty, soap, cigar and food products, posters and calendars. Bernhardt’s “S” silhouette, her sharp profile and curly, red hair corresponded perfectly to the aesthetics sought by the Symbolists and Art Nouveau artists. Four hundred pieces make up the exhibition “Sarah Bernhardt – And the Woman Created the Star” (Et la femme créa la star) at the Petit Palais until August 27, 2023.

The exhibition presents all of Sarah Bernhardt’s talents, which included actress, business woman, theatre owner, voyager, entrepreneur, sculptor, painter, writer, director and emblematic model du jour

What you will see and learn

You will be fascinated by portraits, sculptures, costumes, posters, clothing, interiors, films and art from her incredibly, fruitful life. She was an extraordinary woman, with a strong character, who seems to have ignored borders and limits to establish herself as the first international star in history. Plan at least two and one-half hours for the exhibition. I needed four hours and lunch at the Petit Palais café.

With the advancement of photography, you will see the artist in actual stage settings and costumes. You will hear her golden voice recorded in a studio. She leaned over the device, which is why her diction sounds steely and almost artificial.

Alfons Mucha's Gismonda poster of Sarah Bernhardt first of six
Alfons Mucha’s Gismonda poster of Sarah Bernhardt first of six – the poster that made him a celebrity

Nothing was artificial about Sarah Bernhardt. The evidence is her portraits, films, Alfons Mucha’s posters created between 1800 and 1900, the Nadar photos, her sculptures, her studio paintings and her costumes. She was a self-made woman and living star.

You will journey from the 1860s to 1923 from the beginning to the end of her career. You travel with Sarah Bernhardt in the 1870s when she embarks on a series of international tours that take her to five continents. Her great American tours between 1880 and 1913 lead her to give 156 performances in 50 cities. You will see how she traveled aboard her mythical Pullman train specially designed for her. Her performances and recitals were performed in French in front of audiences that spoke very little or no French. They came because she was Sarah Bernhardt.

It was her desire to promote French culture and luxury. These tours allowed her, as well, to escape from the sometimes-hostile Parisian theatrical world, to ensure her financial independence and to satisfy a perpetual need for discovery. Emile Zola came to her defense after a critic reproached her for her multiple activities, actress, painter and sculptor. Sarah Bernhardt was an energetic businesswoman. You will see and experience her as theatre director and business manager at the Châtelet theatre in 1899, which became known as the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre (today’s Théâtre de la Ville). During the German occupation in 1941, the Germans would remove her name from the theatre because her mother was a Dutch Jew.

Additional background

Miss Bernhardt interpreted hundreds of roles. When she played male roles, it was because there were more roles to choose from. She found they had more character appeal than female roles. Sarah Bernhardt was not the first nor the only actress to play male roles. She was, however, the first woman to play the role of Hamlet.

The actress’ repertoire of authors included Racine, Shakespeare as well as 19th century authors, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas fils (son). She managed to transition from theatre to silent films.

She was friends with artists Gustave Doré, Gustave Moreau, Georges Clairin, Louise Abbéma, Alfons Mucha, photographers Felix and Paul Nadar, the writer, George Sand and playwrights Victor Hugo, who tagged her as the “Golden Voice”, Edmond Rostand, Victorien Sardou and Sacha Guitry and the musician Reynaldo Hahn. Felix Nadar, Georges Clairin, Louise Abbéma, Alfons Mucha and many others helped to build her myth.

She continued her engagements and visits until 1913. She died of uraemia and kidney failure in 1923 and is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery.