Title: Sarah Bernhardt.
Author : CLAIRIN Georges-Jules-Victor (1845 - 1919)
Creation date : 1876
Date shown: 1876
Dimensions: Height 250 - Width 200
Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas
Storage location: Petit Palais Museum
Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bullozsite web
Picture reference: 01-001272 / nv744
© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz
Publication date: July 2005
The transformations of theatrical life
The last third of the 19th century was marked in France by a profound modification of the structures of theatrical life. In 1864, Napoleon III put an end to the “privilege system” instituted in 1806-1807 by his uncle; henceforth, the theatrical activity is free from any administrative constraints (apart from censorship) and it no longer obeys the laws of the market. It is also leading to a change in the offer: instead of exploiting a repertoire by ensuring the rapid rotation of a large number of pieces, we are now seeking to maximize the profitability of productions. These are more and more designed around stars (or "idols") to which the term "star" has been applied since that time. The artist who knows best how to take advantage of this development of the "star system" is undoubtedly Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923).
A 19th century "femme fatale"
Lying on a garnet sofa, Sarah Bernhardt gazes at the viewer with the quiet assurance of a "diva" sure of her power of seduction. Clairin places it in his luxurious studio-living room, vaguely oriental and decorated with plants. The "kind of white swaddle" (dixit Edmond de Goncourt) which serves as her dress masks the proverbial thinness of the actress and transforms her into "serpentine sinuosities", according to the expression of Zola who adds, in his commentary on the painting: "Little is it that the young actress melted between the braziers lit by the painter. »A light blue stocking barely hidden by a black mule, a hand which holds a fan of white feathers, an arm which leans casually on a yellow cushion: everything contributes, paradoxically, to make this portrait" full-length "a allegorical evocation more than a representation of the actress whose triangular face, the forehead eaten by the hair and the neck buried in its collar, presents moreover somewhat flattered features. The greyhound lying at his feet reinforces the impression of enigmatic elegance that makes this painting, which Clairin most certainly designed in close collaboration with his model, an icon of a "femme fatale" before the hour.
"Queen of attitude and Princess of gesture! » (Edmond Rostand)
Sarah Bernhardt's beginnings are fairly classic: Conservatoire, Comédie-Française, Odéon. It was in this last theater that she had her first big success in 1869 with The passer by François Coppée. Returning to the Comédie-Française in 1871, appointed member in 1875, she was much appreciated in the covers of dramas by Victor Hugo, who nicknamed her "the golden voice" and who, after Hernani (resumed in 1877), offers him a diamond drop with these words: “This tear that you shed is yours. But Sarah understood that in addition to working on her roles, she has to create an image for herself if she is to achieve her goal of being the first. The painting by Clairin, painter and decorator who then began to make a name for himself, was very successful at the Salon of 1876; from now on Clairin will be the official portrait painter of the actress who, over the years, has forged a reputation for eccentricity. Breaking noisily with the Comédie-Française in 1880, she embarked on major tours around the world. In October 1880, she embarked on her first trip to the United States: fifty cities were visited, and the total receipts amounted to the extraordinary sum of 2.4 million francs. The actress travels the Americas in a special train and her impresario uses the most rowdy advertisements. Sarah Bernhardt will not stop traveling the world until the end of her life. As early as 1875, the Divine, as she is called, had a private mansion built in the Monceau plain. There is the studio-living room that Clairin chose for the decoration of his painting, and each room is invaded by a profusion of furniture and knick-knacks from all countries and from all periods. Her numerous relationships, her short failed marriage with actor Damala, her countless whims and extravagances, her talents as a sculptor, her action at the head of several Parisian theaters, finally her exceptional longevity on the stage despite the disease (she is 'une leg in 1915): every aspect of Sarah Bernhardt's life contributes to making her not only the greatest actress of the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century, but also a myth which will serve as a model for the stars of cinema of the following century.
- Bernhardt (Sarah)
Exhibition catalog Sarah Bernhardt or the divine lie, Paris, BnF, 2000.Arthur GOLD and Robert FIZDALE, Sarah bernhardt, Paris, Gallimard, 1994. Claudette JOANNIS, Sarah Bernhardt, queen of attitude, Paris, Payot, 2000. Anne MARTIN-FUGIER, Actress: From Miss Mars to Sarah Bernhardt, Paris, Le Seuil, 2001.
To cite this article
Jean-Claude YON, "The birth of stardom"