Sarah Bernhardt Exhibit at the Petit Palais Paris
The Jewish French Icon Sarah Bernhardt was revealed at the Petit Palais
Sarah Bernhardt — a woman who stands out in history as perhaps the first true star. Her dominance of the French stage, her breakout as an international sensation, and her appearance in motion pictures are all part of her renown. And now, at the Petit Palais, an exhibition featuring images from her life has opened. The show, which runs until August 27, celebrates 100 years since Bernhardt’s death.
She was a French diva and a Jewish icon. Many great plays established her name above all others, like Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas and Edmond Rostand’s L’Aiglon. Hugo loved her “golden voice,” just as Rostand worshiped her as the “queen of the pose and the princess of the gesture.” But she was too large even for the thriving theatrical scene of the Parisian Belle Époque. She toured the world, bringing her powerhouse performances to audiences as far away as California.
Thanks to the recordings made of her performances later on in her career, we have some lively evidence of her power. But these faint glimpses do not do her justice. But this major exhibition at the Petit Palais does. We visited recently, and now we are sharing with you the great insights we drew from this enormous show.
We took the official guided tour at the Exhibition at Petit Palais:
As a tour guide myself, I like joining grouped tours organized by the national museums and the city museums of Paris. There is always something new to learn from a fellow Guide Conférencier!
Petit Palais pays a fitting tribute to the legendary Bernhardt. They bring together more than 400 works to tell the story of her incredible life. These pieces include:
her personal artworks
sculptures and paintings
These elements, along with strong use of informative text panels, bring us close up to the fascinating life of Sarah Bernhardt. The curatorial team, led by Annick Lemoine, managed to turn the enormous assemblage of items into a coherent story — one that lets us understand what made Bernhardt so special and why her memory is still key to understanding her time and our own.
Early Life of Sarah Bernhardt
Bernhardt was born Henriette-Rosine Bernard on October 22, 1844 in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Her mother was a courtesan and her father was a wealthy, though anonymous, attorney. He was a staunch Catholic, and so she was baptized in the church. He also made sure his daughter received an education and had an endowment when she reached the age of majority.
But the Petit Palais exhibition starts us off in the middle of the action: Bernhardt’s leap into Parisian life. Early on, she found a suitor in the Duc de Morny — half-brother to Napoleon III. With his inclinations and connections, he encouraged her to pursue the stage.
This terrified the young woman, as she’d never so much as stepped foot in a theater. So to make her more comfortable with the idea, he took her to watch a play along with her mother and the great writer Alexandre Dumas. (Bernhardt would later mesmerize audiences playing a role in Dumas’s La Dame Aux Camelias.)
The two plays the group watched that night affected the young woman so much that she cried inconsolably. While this irked fellow audience members, it was a sign she was destined for the stage.
Soon enough, she joined the Paris Conservatory and successfully auditioned for the Comédie Française — a theater company started in 1680 and still around today, surviving as the oldest theater company in the entire world.
Though very young, at this point in time Bernhardt already displayed the features of her personality that would make her a star in the eyes of the world. She abhorred boredom, had a restless energy that allowed her to dive into tasks with total and complete abandon. This, no doubt, is why from her first audition she was able to fully embody her roles.
She also had the power to captivate everyone in the audience. She was improperly prepared for her auditions to get into the Comédie Française, and yet she still wowed the judges. And as soon as she walked onto the stage for a live audience, everyone watched, completely entranced. As Edmond Rostand said, "feverish — everything she brushes against…”
Bernhardt could also be so dedicated to her art that she thought about nothing else. This is illustrated well on the night of September 2, 1870. The French army had just suffered defeat in the Battle of Sedan, a part of the Franco-Prussian War. She was set to play the role of the boy troubadour Zanetto that night in a performance of François Coppée’s Le Passant. The show was halted when news of the defeat came, and Bernhardt marched out on stage to share a few words. She said, "I don't know what's going on. All I know is that tomorrow night I'll play Zanetto anyway."
Sarah Bernhardt’s Era: the Belle Époque and the French Third Republic
Bernhardt’s life and career cannot be separated from her time. As a candidate for the first major celebrity, she benefitted from a culture that loved the arts and entertainments of all kinds. After all this was in the middle of the Belle Époque — that era of good feeling near the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. At the time, the world seemed to be more or less peaceful and plentiful, a feeling that ended with the onset of the First World War.
This was also the time of the late Second Empire and the rise of the French Third Republic. That made the country a very free and open place to be, compared to the generations before. There was public education, freedom of the press, and an expanding right to vote. During this time, the first wave of Feminism was beginning to take hold, pushing for equal rights for women and an end to damaging gender stereotypes.
Bernhardt was, in many ways, a major figure in all of this. Her bravado and confidence, her somewhat scandalous (not to mention inauspicious) family background, and her success in spite of everything made her the poster child for a new era of European culture. And she was quite literally a poster child — she is immortalized in countless Art Nouveau posters of the era, many of which are on display in this show.
One piece in the exhibition perfectly summarizes how the values of the time and the genius of Bernhardt merged perfectly. It is a bust of Bernhardt by Jean-Léon Gérôme, completed in 1895.
It shows her inspired by Melpomene, one of the nine ancient Greek muses and the patron of tragedy and the lyre. With his typical mastery, Gérôme presents the actress as someone capable of channeling the divine spark of creativity — the height of good as seen by her era.
In fact, Bernhardt became a major muse herself. At the Paris Salon of 1876, Louise Abbéma (a woman making waves in her own right) and Georges Clairin each presented a portrait of the famous actress. Both of these capture that special charisma that burned behind Bernhardt’s eyes.
With this Salon, the Art Nouveau aesthetic had truly arrived, and it found its central subject in this actress of unparalleled brilliance.
It is perhaps Georges Clairin’s portrait that best displays what made her so special. In his 1876 effort, she is shown in her brand new bohemian mansion nearby Monceau Park — a point of pride for the actress. In the work, the Art Nouveau approach to feminine power and organic lines elevates Bernhardt to almost mythical status. She compliments this with her languid pose, showing off her absolute comfort and confidence in the world, wrapped in a twisting pearl-white negligee. This is mirrored by the dog at her feet, looking up from their own nap as if to ask what we are doing in the room.
Bernhardt herself stares at the viewer with a smoldering presence. She is completely herself with no apologies. Bernhardt loved this painting so much that she held onto the portrait for the rest of her life. After her death, her son donated the work to the Petit Palais. Fitting, then, that a century later they should celebrate the actress with this sweeping exhibition.
The Private Life of the Celebrity Sarah Bernhardt
From the earliest celebrities like Bernhardt herself to the famous actors of today, we are endlessly fascinated by their private lives. We know full and well their public persona, but we want in on the “real story.” In the Petit Palais exhibition, we get a chance to see that. They develop the story of Sarah Bernhardt’s private life through the art and decoration that surrounded her in life.
She paid close attention to the interior design of the mansion she built on the rue Fortuny in 1875. And when she had to relocate a decade later to escape mounting debts, she again strove — this time within more limited means — to curate a specific atmosphere. Her sophistication and refined taste are yet another glamorous element of the story of Bernhardt.
Her taste might be described today as bougie-boho. But at the time, it was simply Bernhardt’s unique eye. She liked things to be over-the-top, exotic, and exploding with color. She also collected many works of art by her artist friends, and she often brought keepsakes back with her on her trips abroad to the Americas and Australia.
To describe this visually, the Petit Palais brings together elements of decor that she owned like costumes and personal objects. These outline her extraordinarily singular and influential tastes. It is in this phase of the exhibition that one really gets a sense for the culture of the time.
We are transported back to the Belle Époque, to the rise of Art Nouveau, and to a time when the first celebrity was thrilling audiences from the stages of Paris and the world beyond.
Bernhardt’s Major Roles and Success in the Theater
Above all, the story of Sarah Bernhardt is one of success on the stage.
Many of her roles pushed the boundaries of what women could do in public. For instance, she was the first woman to portray Hamlet. And she often triumphed in works by Shakespeare, as well as tragedies by the French great Jean Racine, particularly his Phèdre.
In the 1884 premiere performance of Victorien Sardou’s Théodora, she played the title role — an actress who rises to power as Empress of Rome. The play was an immediate scandal, as it depicted a woman in a position of authority.
Three years later she teamed up with Sardou again, and again she caused a stir. She played Queen Elizabeth in La Tosca, an adultress. The character was specifically written for Bernhardt by Sardou (probably her favorite playwright). She even appeared naked on stage during a bathing scene! This was the talk of Paris — seen as the most outrageous thing that ever could happen on stage.
These roles made her a mega star by the end of the 19th century, leading to Jean Cocteau referring to her as a “sacred monster.”
Her long and storied career again benefitted by the times she lived in. Early on, Napoleon III held an iron grip on power during the Second Empire. But he allowed a liberalization of theaters in 1864. This let a huge number of venues open up overnight, allowing for a wide range of opportunities for any actress willing to seize the moment.
This proliferation of the theater scene led to the press increasing their coverage. Soon, most newspapers had some coverage of the stage, and there were even multiple publications devoted entirely to the art.
Bernhardt not only acted, she also wrote. She produced plays and memoirs, both drawing from her extensive experience on the stage.
She even managed to turn her success in front of an audience to success behind the scenes. She took over management of the Théâtre des Nations — using her fame and skills to turn it into the greatest theater of the time.
With all of this fame and fortune, she eventually retreated to the island of Belle-Île-en-Mer off the coast of Brittany. It is here that she cultivated a love for nature and began to sculpt works of art.
The End of the Great Life of Sarah Bernhardt
In 1914, near the end of her career, gangrene from an injury during a performance in Rio de Janeiro almost a decade earlier forced doctors to amputate her leg. Nevertheless, she continued to perform, and her performances continued to move audiences.
She died in 1923, still working as a stage actress. Her funeral was attended by 30,000, and she was finally laid to rest at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery.
Discover Sarah Bernhardt in Paris
This exhibition guided tour by the Petit Palais was absolutely magnificent. It matched the size and scope of her history-making life, while also managing to get up close to the woman herself. There were everything from charming 19th century advertisements for plays to Art Nouveau decor to artwork made by the actress herself.
If you love Sarah Bernhardt or are fascinated by the Belle Époque, you cannot miss this incredible exhibition.
Want to learn more about Bernhardt?
On your next trip to Paris, consider taking a private tour with me or Livia, my colleague. We will focus on this quintessential Jewish celebrity.
We can visit her grave site at the Pere Lachaise, trace her life through the streets of Paris, visit the theaters that she once graced the stages of, and take many other outings that will illustrate this fascinating life during such an interesting time.
Please reach out by email preferably and let’s begin crafting a fully customized tour just for you.