Highlighting Women Makers: A Fantastical and Revealing Self-Portrayal of Sarah Bernhardt
Celebrated and remembered for her colossal contributions to the realm of theater, the distinguished French actress Sarah Bernhardt was, indeed, as multifaceted as she declares herself in this dramatic self portrait. The actress appears in this astonishingly sculptural inkwell as a mythical amalgamation of her own likeness and various animalistic components—both those belonging to the domain of fantasy and those of the known world—all cast in bronze in sensational detail. As a versatile and dynamic artist, Bernhardt is recorded as once correcting a reporter who described her solely as an actress, stating that her vocation was not so singular, but instead, “art without constraints.”
Born Henriette-Rosine Bernard on the 22nd or 23rd of October 1844, Sarah Bernhardt—as she would later dub herself—was the illegitimate daughter of Judith Bernard, a Dutch-born Parisian courtesan whose clientele was among the most prestigious in all of Western Europe. It was, in fact, friends within her mother’s circle that first recognized the young actress’s potential, and at a remarkably young age, she came under the tutelage of her most ardent champion, the playwright Alexandre Dumas.
Despite this early promise, Sarah Bernhardt fell short of immediate success. Of her debut in the theater, the most influential theater critic of the day, Francisque Sarcey, wrote, “She carries herself well and pronounces with precision. That is all can be said of her at the moment.” Undaunted, Bernhardt continued to perform with moving sincerity and a quickly emerging talent, so much so that a mere few years later, Sarcey revised his summation of her skill set, writing, “She has the sovereign grace, the penetrating charm, the I don’t know what […] She is a natural artist. An incomparable artist.” At the height of her career, she performed for Queen Victoria of England, King Alfonso XII of Spain, Emperor Joseph I of Austria and Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, all at the behest of the royal courts themselves, and Czar Alexander III of Russia even broke court protocol to bow to the French actress when she arrived in his court. Such was her acclaim that when—after many years of fame—her only son’s father, a Belgian prince, offered to publicly acknowledge their son, the young man rebuffed his royal lineage, stating that he was perfectly content to be known only as the son of Sarah Bernhardt.
A maverick who proclaimed to “adore the unexpected,” Bernhardt portrayed sex workers with dignity, courage, and grace, and quite publicly supported the cause of the unjustly accused Alfred Dreyfus during the famed “Dreyfus Affair.” During the Franco-Prussian War, Berhardt took charge of turning her world-renowned theater, The Odeon, into a hospital for soldiers wounded in battle outside of Paris, bringing in her personal chef to feed the hungry and, later, burning prized stage props to keep the wounded from freezing. Intent on the sanctity of all life, she insisted, since childhood, and against church dictates, on Christian burials for all of her pets, which ranged from lap dogs and cheetahs to exotic birds and pet monkeys. After her leg was amputated at the hip in her mid-50s, Bernhardt refused to stop performing, instead having eager playwrights of fantastic acclaim reprise roles so that she could perform them sitting down.
Her bravery on and off the stage, as well as her uncanny ability to transform in both arenas, are captured here, in this darkly abstract self portrait, not only with great beauty but also with a fidelity to her likeness that reveal Sarcey’s words to be true: she was, without question, an incomparable artist. The execution of her own head, neck, and face in this sculpture, which we know to be true to her appearance from countless historical photographs, belies an amazing facility for modelling in the round as well as a sensitivity to the contrast of smooth and rough surfaces.
Sarah Bernhardt’s passion for sculpture came from her studies with Mathieu-Meusnier, a sculptor who was widely known for sentimental storytelling with his pieces; quickly picking up the craft and developing a deep love for the art form, she would go on to exhibit her work regularly in New York, London, and Paris. Having set up a studio in Montmartre, Sarah Bernhardt would host droves of guests while dressed in her now infamous sculptor’s outfit, consisting of a white blouse and slacks. Similar to her initial, rocky reception from critics on the stage, many dismissed Bernhardt as a sculptor—Rodin dismissed her sculpture as “old fashioned tripe,” and she was attacked in the press for pursuing an activity inappropriate for an actress. She was defended in these pursuits by her great friend and admirer, Emile Zola, who wrote, “How droll! Not content with finding her thin, or declaring her mad, they want to regulate her daily activities […] let a law be passed immediately to prevent the accumulation of talent!”
This intriguing rebus that reveals the great actress’ personality is a patinated bronze sculpture in which she portrays herself personified as a Chimera—with her sensitive, intelligent face atop the body of a bat-winged lion with the tail of a fish and the claws of a mythical beast—exposing that beneath her theatrical disguises was a creature of strength and courage. Possibly inspired by her own 1874 performance in Octave Feuillet’s Le Sphinx (in which the heroine she portrayed wore a poison ring in the form of a sphinx), the lion’s shoulders are affixed theater masks, not of tragedy and comedy as one would expect, but expressing awe and astonishment. The claws of this beast hold an open bowl in their clutches, hiding a secret inkwell, with curling ram horns set on either side, and a foreboding devil’s skull affixed to the top.
The Chimera was, according to Greek mythology, a monstrous, fire-breathing hybrid creature of Lycia in Asia Minor, composed of multiple parts of more than one animal. The term “Chimera” today has come to describe any mythical or fictional animal with parts taken from various animals, describing anything composed of disparate parts, or perceived as wildly imaginative, implausible, or dazzling, which is quite fitting for the incomparable Bernhardt, who was thus described by the critic Jules Lemaître: "... [She is] a distant and chimerical creature, both hieratic and serpentine, with a lure both mystical and sensual." The unique combination of natural forms in this self-portrait is, without question, under the influence of the Art Nouveau and Symbolism movements of the late 19th century, a metaphorical examination of her unparalleled ability to transform herself on stage. Declaring that "All the best parts belong to men," Bernhardt financed classic productions where she cast herself as hero, with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Goethe’s Werther among her most acclaimed roles.
The original casting of this particular work, executed in 1880, accompanied the artist from her studio in Montmartre around the world, exhibited in private salons before her performances to intimate audiences on her famous international tours. An imaginative and dazzling performer, and a pioneer of female social freedom, Bernhardt's self portrait provides insight into the soul of an artist at the forefront of women's social transformation. As Henry James wrote of Bernhardt, “her greatest idea must always be to show herself [...] her finest production is her own person.” One of only twenty-five known, surviving works in this medium by Bernhardt, this work has been collected by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Virginia Museum of Fine Art and the Princeton Museum, and remains in the Royal Collection Trust of Great Britain, to which it was gifted by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.