Sarah Bernhardt painted by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1879)
Sarah Bernardt (1844-1923) has been a favorite model for many sculptures and artists of the 19th century. I have often come across paintings or sculptures of her and thought it would be interesting to learn more about this famous woman.
Sarah was a French actress who performed on stage and in silent films, and considered as "the most famous actress the world has ever known".
Born in Paris, as Rosine Bernardt to Julie Bernardt and an unknown father she started life by observing her mother make a living as a courtesan. Bernardt was not a stranger to the hardship of single women carving out an existence for themselves in 19th century Europe and pursued a stage career by enrolling at the Comedie Francaise in 1862.
Soon after she left for Belgium and became the mistress of Henri, Prince de Ligne. The relationship led to the birth of a son in 1864, which prompted Henri to propose marriage. But a marriage between a Prince and a woman from such a low rank was considered impossible and his family did everything in their power to put an end to their relationship.
Berhardt photographed by Felix Nadar 1865
Sarah returned to Paris and continued to go after her acting career. She must have felt heartbroken and sometime during that time acquired a coffin in which she would sleep every night. She claimed that sleeping in a coffin helped her to understand how to play the tragic roles on stage. Tragedies in her personal life most likely formed her deep understanding how to convey drama on stage and in 1870 she garnered enough fame as an actress that she soon was sought after in all of Europe , in the USA and even Cuba.
Sarah met people of all walks of life and spend time with artists, actors, authors among them the famous Orientalist painter/sculpture Jean Leone Gerome, Gustav Dores, Georges Clairin, Alphonse Mucha, Victor Hugo and many others.
She even acted in silent films with a debut in Hamlet 1900, eight motion pictures and two biographical films.
In 1905 while performing in Victorien Sardou's La Tosca in Rio de Janeiro, the actress fell from a parapet and seriously injured her leg. Complications led to the amputation of her right leg and she had to use a wheelchair for several months until a proper prosthesis could be made. She continued to perform until her death in 1923 due to kidney failure.
Considering the time in which Sarah Bernardt lived and the circumstances that affected her life, I find her to be a fascinating woman. She truly believed in herself and loved her craft as an actress. No one and nothing would stop her to do what she loved best.