Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt

Bernhardt circa 1878
Born Rosine Bernardt
c. (1844-10-22)22 October 1844[1]
Paris, France
Died 26 March 1923(1923-03-26) (aged 78)
Paris, France
Occupation Actress
Years active 1862–1922
Spouse(s) Ambroise Aristide Damala (m. 1882–89)

Sarah Bernhardt (French: [sa.ʁa bɛʁ.nɑʁt];[2] c. 22/23 October 1844 – 26 March 1923) was a French stage and early film actress. She was referred to as "the most famous actress the world has ever known", and is regarded as one of the finest actors of all time.[3][4] Bernhardt made her fame on the stages of France in the 1870s, at the beginning of the Belle Epoque period, and was soon in demand in Europe and the Americas. She developed a reputation as a sublime dramatic actress and tragedienne, earning the nickname "The Divine Sarah". In her later career she starred in some of the earliest films ever produced.

Early life

Sarah Bernhardt, in 1864; photographic portrait by Nadar
Sarah Bernhardt by Napoleon Sarony

Bernhardt was born in Paris as Rosine Bernardt,[5] the daughter of Julie Bernardt (1821, Amsterdam – 1876, Paris) and an unknown father. Julie was one of six children of an itinerant Jewish spectacle merchant, "vision specialist" and petty criminal, Moritz Baruch Bernardt, and Sara Hirsch (later known as Janetta Hartog; c. 1797–1829).[6] Five weeks after his first wife's death in 1829, Julie's father married Sara Kinsbergen (1809–1878). He had abandoned his five daughters and one son with their stepmother by 1835.[6] Julie, together with her younger sister Rosine, left for Paris, where she made a living as a courtesan and was known by the name "Youle". Julie had five daughters, including a twin who died in infancy in 1843.

Sarah Bernhardt changed her first name and added an "h" to her surname. Her birth records were lost in a fire in 1871. To prove French citizenship—necessary for Légion d'honneur eligibility—she created false birth records, in which she was the daughter of "Judith van Hard" and "Édouard Bernardt" from Le Havre, in later stories either a law student, accountant, naval cadet or naval officer.[6][7]

When Bernhardt was young her mother sent her to Grandchamp, an Augustine convent school near Versailles.[8] In 1860 she began attending the Conservatoire de musique et de déclamation in Paris and eventually became a student at the Comédie Française where she would have her acting debut (11 August 1862) in the title role of Racine's Iphigénie to lackluster reviews.[9] Her time there was short-lived; she was asked to resign after slapping another actress across the face for shoving her younger sister during a birthday celebration for Molière.[10]

Much of the uncertainty about the facts of Bernhardt's life arises from her tendency to exaggerate and distort. Alexandre Dumas, fils, described her as a notorious liar.[4]

Stage career

Bernhardt photographed by Félix Nadar 1865

Bernhardt's stage career started in 1862 while she was a student at the Comédie-Française, France's most prestigious theater. She decided to leave France, and soon ended up in Belgium, where she became the mistress of Henri, Prince de Ligne, and gave birth to their son, Maurice, in 1864. After Maurice's birth, the Prince proposed marriage, but his family forbade it and persuaded Bernhardt to refuse and end their relationship.[11]

After being expelled from the Comédie Française, she resumed the life of courtesan to which her mother had introduced her at a young age, and made considerable amounts of money during that period (1862–65). It was during this time she acquired her famous coffin, in which she often slept in lieu of a bed – claiming that doing so helped her understand her many tragic roles.

Bernhardt then reverted to the theater, securing a contract at the Théâtre de L’Odéon where she began performing in 1866. Her most famous performance there was her travesty performance as the Florentine minstrel in François Coppé's Le Passant (January 1869).[12] With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War performances were stopped and Bernhardt converted the theatre into a makeshift hospital where she took care of the soldiers wounded on the battlefield.[13] In 1872, she left the Odéon and returned to Comédie-Française. One of her remarkable successes there was in the title role of Voltaire's Zaïre (1874).

She made her fame on the stages of Europe in the 1870s and was soon in demand all over Europe. Her first tour of the United States and Canada took place in 1880-81 (157 performances in 31 cities).[14] In 1887 she toured South America including Cuba where she performed in the Sauto Theater, in Matanzas. In 1888 she toured Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Sweden, Norway and Russia. In 1891-92 she took part in a worldwide tour which included much of Europe, Russia, North & South America, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Samoa. Another tour of America took place in 1896. 1901 saw her 6th American Tour, 1906 her 7th (her "first Farewell Tour" where she concluded the Southern California leg with "La Tosca" at the Venice Auditorium), 1910 her 8th (when she made a recording on Wax Cylinder at Thomas Edison's laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey), and 1913-1914 her 9th (on the evening of March 12, 1913, in Los Angeles, she was involved in a motorcar accident while she was being driven in a taxi to the downtown Orpheum Theatre to appear in "La Tosca").

In between tours Bernhardt took over the lease of the Théâtre de la Renaissance, which she ran as producer-director-star from 1893 to 1899.[15] She coached many young women in the art of acting, including actress and courtesan Liane de Pougy.[16]

In 1899 Bernhardt took over the former Théâtre des Nations on the Place du Châtelet, renaming it the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt and opening on 21 January in one of her most admired parts, the title role in Victorien Sardou's La Tosca. This was followed by revivals of Racine's Phèdre (24 February), Octave Feuillet's Dalila (8 March), Gaston de Wailly's Patron Bénic (14 March), Edmond Rostand's La Samaritaine (25 March), and Alexandre Dumas fils's La Dame aux Camélias on 9 April. On 20 May, she premiered her most controversial part, the title role in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in a prose adaptation which she had commissioned from Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob. The play was greeted with rave reviews despite its running time of four hours.[17][18] She developed a reputation as a serious dramatic actress, earning the title "The Divine Sarah"; arguably, she was the most famous actress of the 19th century.[19]

Bernhardt also participated in scandalous productions such as John Wesley De Kay's "Judas". It performed in New York's Globe Theatre for only one night in December 1910 before it was banned there, as well as in Boston and Philadelphia. In New York's art scene of 1910 the story line of the play was nothing short of scandalous. Mary Magdalene, who at first became a lover of Pontius Pilate, then of Judas Iscariot, got involved with Jesus. Judas, after realizing that Mary Magdalene had given herself to Jesus, decided to betray his friend to the Romans. To top the provocation of New York's theater lovers, Judas was played by the voluptuous Sarah Bernhardt.[20]

In Paris, Bernhardt continued to direct the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt until her death, when her son Maurice took over. After his death in 1928, the theatre retained the name Sarah Bernhardt until the Occupation by the Germans in World War II,[21] when the name was changed to Théâtre de la Cité because of Bernhardt's Jewish ancestry.[22]

The Fool and Death, a bronze made by Bernhardt depicting Triboulet in Hugo's Le roi s'amuse

Fine arts career

After establishing herself on the stage, by age 25 Bernhardt, who designed her own clothes (and was the first woman to wear a pantsuit),[23] began to study painting and sculpture under Mathieu Meusnier and Emilio Franceschi. Her early work consisted mainly of bust portraiture, but later works were more ambitious in design. Fifty works have been documented, of which 25 are known to still exist, including the naturalistic marble Après la Tempête (National Museum of Women in the Arts).[24] Her work was exhibited at the Salon 1874 – 1886, with several items shown in the Columbia Exposition in Chicago and at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. Bernhardt also painted, and while on a theatrical tour to New York, hosted a private viewing of her paintings and sculpture for 500 guests.[25] She may be best known for her 1880 Art Nouveau decorative bronze inkwell, which portrays a self-portrait with bat wings and a fish tail (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).[26] This may have been inspired by her 1874 performance in Le Sphinx.[27]

Personal life

Sarah Bernhardt as the Queen in Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas, 1879.

Bernhardt had an affair with a Belgian nobleman, Charles-Joseph Eugène Henri Georges Lamoral de Ligne (1837–1914), son of Eugène, 8th Prince of Ligne, with whom she bore her only child, Maurice Bernhardt (1864–1928). Maurice did not become an actor but worked for most of his life as a manager and agent for various theaters and performers, frequently managing his mother's career in her later years, but rarely with great success. Maurice and his family were usually financially dependent, in full or in part, on his mother until her death. Maurice married a Polish princess, Maria Jablonowska (see Jablonowski), with whom he had two daughters, Simone (who married Edgar Gross, son of a wealthy Philadelphia soap manufacturer) and Lysiana (who married the playwright Louis Verneuil ).

Bernhardt's close friends included several artists, most notably Gustave Doré and Georges Clairin, and actors Mounet-Sully and Lou Tellegen, as well as the famous French author Victor Hugo. Alphonse Mucha based several of his iconic Art Nouveau works on her. Her friendship with Louise Abbéma (1853–1927), a French impressionist painter, some nine years her junior, was so close and passionate that the two women were rumored to be lovers. In 1990, a painting by Abbéma, depicting the two on a boat ride on the lake in the bois de Boulogne, was donated to the Comédie-Française. The accompanying letter stated that the painting was "Peint par Louise Abbéma, le jour anniversaire de leur liaison amoureuse"[28] (loosely translated: "Painted by Louise Abbéma on the anniversary of their love affair").

She later married Greek-born actor Aristides Damala (known in France by the stage name Jacques Damala) in London in 1882, but the marriage, which legally endured until Damala's death in 1889 at age 34, quickly collapsed, largely due to Damala's dependence on morphine. During the later years of this marriage, Bernhardt was said to have been involved in an affair with the future King Edward VII while he was still the Prince of Wales.[29]

Bernhardt is said to have once stated, "Me pray? Never! I'm an atheist."[30] She accepted the last rites, however, shortly before her death.[31] At her request, her funeral Mass was celebrated at Saint-François-de-Sales Church, a "modest church she attended during her stays in Paris".[32] Though she had been baptised a Roman Catholic, she also identified with her Jewish heritage.[33]

Silent film career

Bernhardt was one of the pioneer silent movie actresses, debuting as Hamlet in the two-minute long film Le Duel d'Hamlet in 1900. (Technically, this was not a silent film, and in fact, it is cited as one of the first examples of a sound and moving image syncing system created with the new phono-cinema-theatre system.)[34] This can be seen on YouTube.[35] She went on to star in eight motion pictures and two biographical films in all. The latter included Sarah Bernhardt à Belle-Isle (1912), a film about her daily life at home.

Later career

Advertisement (1917)

In 1905, while performing in Victorien Sardou's La Tosca in Teatro Lírico do Rio de Janeiro, Bernhardt injured her right knee when jumping off the parapet in the final scene. The leg never healed properly. By 1915, gangrene set in and her entire right leg was amputated; she was required to use a wheelchair for several months. Bernhardt reportedly refused a $10,000 offer by a showman to display her amputated leg as a medical curiosity. (While P.T. Barnum is usually cited as the one to have made the offer, he had been dead since 1891.)

She continued her career, sometimes without using a wooden prosthetic limb, which she did not like. She carried out a successful tour of America in 1915, and on returning to France she played in her own productions almost continuously until her death. Later successes included Daniel (1920), La Gloire (1921), and Régine Armand (1922). According to Arthur Croxton, the manager of London's Coliseum, the amputation was not apparent during her performances, which were done with the use of the artificial limb.[36] Her physical condition may have limited her mobility on the stage, but the charm of her voice, which had altered little with age, ensured her success.


Sarah Bernhardt died from uremia following kidney failure in 1923. Newspaper reports stated she died "peacefully, without suffering, in the arms of her son".[37] She is believed to have been 79 years old. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street.[38]


Strand Magazine

Selected roles

Bernhardt as Hamlet, 1899[39]
Bernhardt, in a portrait, 1890s


Sarah Bernhardt in a 1911 film adaptation of Camille (La Dame aux camélias)




Bernhardt's career spanned over six decades, during which she established herself as the Victorian era's most celebrated actress. In addition to being one of the greatest actors of all time, she was noted for her outsize legend, which made her the first international entertainment icon. Bernhardt's admirers included Sigmund Freud, who kept a photograph of her in his waiting room, Mark Twain, who remarked "There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses— and then there is Sarah Bernhardt", and Czar Alexander III, who famously rejected a bow from Bernhardt with "No, Madame. It is I who must bow to you," (and he did so before his entire court). Numerous theatres and works bear her name.


  1. She was baptised in 1857, when she was about 12, but the record is missing. A birth date taken from a certificate of a baptism conducted at the age of 12 would not be reliable as a primary source, and could only be used to corroborate other evidence. (In The Art of High Drama, a Professor Ockman describes finding an "unidentified newspaper clipping" in the Bibliothèque de la Comédie Française in Paris, which included a copy of a baptismal certificate saying Bernhardt was born on 25 September 1844.) It has been claimed that "Bernhardt sometimes celebrated her birthday on 23 October", although there is no verification of this claim. Bernhardt's 1907 autobiography Ma double vie (My Double Life) made no reference to her date of birth.
  2. Her own pronunciation, listen e.g. to on YouTube
  3. Sarah B
  4. 1 2 Gottlieb, Robert. "The Drama of Sarah Bernhardt". Retrieved 18 October 2007.
  5. In 1859 she enrolled with that name and a birthdate of 23 October 1844 at the Conservatoire National; this is the only record surviving from before her birth record was lost in 1871. See Snel, pp. 9–10. Snel argues that since her birth record was still available and there was little reason to obscure the truth, "this registration can be regarded as founded on facts".
  6. 1 2 3 Snel
  7. Bernhardt's fictitious father was named after her uncle Édouard Bernardt, youngest (half) brother (born c. 1826) of her mother, who was raised in a boarding school in Tours and emigrated to Chile before 1860 (see Snel, p. 82)
  8. Gold, pp. 17–20
  9. Gold, pp. 31–32, 41, 47
  10. Gold, p. 52
  11. Skinner, Cornelia Otis (1966) Madame Sarah; Paragon House
  12. Aston, Elaine (1989). Sarah Bernhardt: A French Actress on the English Stage. Oxford: Berg. p. 5. ISBN 0854960198.
  13. Gold, pp. 82–85
  14. Sarah Bernhardt at the Internet Broadway Database
  15. Gottlieb, Robert (2010). Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt. London: Yale University Press. p. 121. ISBN 0300192592.
  16. Gundle, Stephen (2008). Glamour: A History. Oxford University Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-0199210985.
  17. Robert, Gottlieb (2010). Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt. Yale University Press. p. 142. ISBN 0300192592.
  18. Almanach des Spectacles, année 1899, p. 63; Octave Feuillet's Dalila OCLC 691937024; Gaston de Wailly's Patron Bénic OCLC 48750066, 458828120; Morand and Schwob's Hamlet OCLC 691937174.
  19. Golden, Eve. "From Stage to Screen: The Film Career of Sarah Bernhardt". Retrieved 18 October 2007.
  20. von Feilitzsch, Heribert (2012) In Plain Sight: Felix A. Sommerfeld, Spymaster in Mexico, 1908 to 1914, Henselstone Verlag LLC, Amissville, VA, ISBN 0985031719, p. 352
  21. McCormick, John (1995). "Bernhardt, Sarah" in The Cambridge Guide to the Theatre. Martin Banham (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521434379.
  22. Based on the article Théâtre de la Ville in the French Wikipédia (version 12 juin 2012 à 11:13).
  23. "The Divine Sarah". Orange Coast Magazine. 18 (11): 16. Nov 1992. ISSN 0279-0483.
  24. 18th–19th Century | National Museum of Women in the Arts. Retrieved on 15 June 2014.
  25. Bernhardt As Hostess; A Private View of Paintings and Sculpture; New York Times; 14 November 1880
  26. Fantastic Inkwell (Self-Portrait as a Sphinx) – Sarah Bernhardt, French, 1844–1923; Museum of Fine Arts;, Boston;; retrieved 15 June 2014.
  27. Marks, Patricia (2003). Sarah Bernhardt's First American Theatrical Tour 1880–1881. McFarland. ISBN 0786414952. p. 175
  28. Guibert et al. (2000) Portrait(s) de Sarah Bernhardt. Bibliothèque Nationale de France. ISBN 2717721134
  29. "Edward VII biography". Archived from the original on 25 May 2006. Retrieved 18 October 2007.
  30. "Positive Atheism's Big List of Quotations: Sarah Bernhardt". Retrieved 18 October 2007.
  31. Menefee, David W. (2003) Sarah Bernhardt in the Theater of Films and Sound Recordings. North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 078641636X
  32. Hathorn;
  33. "Sarah Bernhardt".
  34. "Filming Shakespeare With And Without Words In Settings Familiar And Unfamiliar". Archived from the original on 30 October 2007. Retrieved 18 October 2007.
  35. "1899 Hamlet, the Fencing Scene with Laertes".
  36. Croxton, Arthur (26 March 2011). "Sarah Bernhardt in London, best of all possible Samaritans". The Fortnightly Review,
  37. "Obituary: Mme. Sarah Bernhardt". North-China Herald, 31 March 1923, p. 866.
  38. Ullman, Dana (2007). The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy. North Atlantic Books. p. 138. ISBN 978-1556436710.
  39. Almanach des Spectacles, année 1899, p. 63; Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet at the Library of Congress.


Further reading

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