(b. 1844 – d. 1923)
Sarah Bernhardt (or, Sarah the Divine— or, most famously, “The First Superstar”) was born Henriette-Rosine Bernard in Paris in 1884. She is now regarded as a celebrity who defined our cultural perception of most famous personalites to come thereafter. But we must not lose sight of the woman behind the myths. Though best known as an actress of great acclaim, she is also a woman who arranged a christian burial for her pet lizard, occasionally slept in a coffin, and helped doctors amputate limbs during the Franco Prussian War. She was eccentric and ex-centric, turning the world around herself into a flurry of creative energy.
Bernhardt began painting while she was at the Comédie-Française; her paintings were mostly landscapes and seascapes— she also took on sculpture, which grew into a serious passion. Her sculpture teacher was Mathieu-Meusnier, an academic sculptor with a specialization in public monuments and sentimental narrative works. Her conceptual and technical skill developed quickly and in no time she exhibited and sold a high-relief plaque of the death of Ophelia. She created the allegorical figure of Song for the group Music on the facade of the Opera House of Monte Carlo. She went on to exhibit a group of figures, called Après la Tempête (After the Storm), at the 1876 Paris Salon, and recieved an honorable mention. Thereafter, she sold the original work, the molds, and signed plaster miniatures, earning more than 10,000 francs. The original is now displayed the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.
Fifty works by Bernhardt have been documented, of which 25 are known to still exist. In 1880, she made an Art Nouveau decorative bronze inkwell, a self-portrait with bat wings and a fish tail, possibly inspired by her 1874 performance in Le Sphinx.
Several of her works were shown in the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago and at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. While on tour in New York, she hosted a private viewing of her paintings and sculptures for 500 guests. She set up a studio at 11 boulevard de Clichy in Montmarte, where she frequently entertained her guests dressed in her sculptor's outfit, including white satin blouse and white silk trousers. Rodin dismissed her sculptures as "old-fashioned tripe", and she was attacked in the press for pursuing an activity inappropriate for an actress.
She was defended by 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!”
Though in the end, nothing we nor Zola could wrinte would do this amazing free spirit justice.