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Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama

December 2, 2005 - April 2, 2006

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That Sarah Bernhardt, the most fashionable global celebrity of the 19th century, was born Jewish, gave rise, in fin-de-siècle France, to much hand-wringing and soul-searching and deep ambivalence. Splendid relics from the great tragedienne's career, alongside evidence of the public fascination with -- and hostility toward -- her larger-than-life persona, are on view ....
The New York Times

Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama is the first major museum show ever devoted to the great French actress (1844-1923). Over the course of a remarkable sixty-year career, "the Divine Sarah" established herself as the premier tragedienne in the West. Her very name became synonymous with acting and, long after her death, it continues to exercise a powerful spell on performers and audiences around the world. Born five years after the invention of photography, Bernhardt pioneered the use of modern technologies to disseminate her image, and was the first major stage actress to star in films.

Sarah Bernhardt embodied the art of the Belle Époque. The exhibition will illuminate the life and art of this remarkable performer through over 250 spectacular and rarely seen objects in all media--painting, sculpture, photography, costumes, stage designs, Art Nouveau theater posters and jewelry, her furniture and personal effects, as well as a recording of her voice and selected films in which she starred. Drawing on public and private collections in America and Europe, Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama will explore celebrity, theatrical style, biography, politics, fashion, and taste.

Exhibition highlights include: a selection of rare photographs of Sarah Bernhardt by the pioneering French photographer Félix Nadar taken when the actress was no more than twenty and had no reputation; other vintage photographs of the actress in such famous roles as Hamlet, Camille, Cleopatra, and Joan of Arc; sumptuous posters by the Art Nouveau designers, Alphonse Mucha and Jules Chéret; a splendid crown studded with pearls designed by Alphonse Mucha and executed by René Lalique; an infamous publicity photograph of Bernhardt posing in her coffin (c. 1880); a letter Sarah Bernhardt wrote to Emile Zola in support of his defense of Alfred Dreyfus; a lithograph by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec of Sarah Bernhardt as the tragic heroine in Phèdre; paintings of the actress by prominent contemporaries; costumes including a gold-embroidered cape and a jewel-encrusted crown for Théodora as well as jeweled bracelets for Cleopatra; items from Bernhardt's personal wardrobe including an elegant ermine capelet, multi-colored embroidered kid gloves and a feathered fan; examples of sculpture by Sarah Bernhardt; a rare audio recording (c. 1900) of the actress performing an Edmond Rostand play, L'Aiglon (The Eaglet), about the son of Napoleon Bonaparte; film excerpts of the actress at home and performing such roles as Camille and Queen Elizabeth, highlighted by her first film - of the duel scene from Hamlet - made in 1900.

Also featured in the exhibition is a handkerchief embroidered with "Sarah," which has been passed down from Bernhardt to a distinguished line of American actresses, including Helen Hayes, Julie Harris, Susan Strasberg, and Cherry Jones.

The daughter and niece of Jewish courtesans, Bernhardt was baptized a Catholic, but was mercilessly attacked by the popular press for her supposedly Jewish features and behavior. She was a staunch defender of Alfred Dreyfus and wrote a letter in support of Emile Zola's publication of J'Accuse. At the same time she was a revered national figure, patriotically serving France during the Franco-Prussian War and World War I.

Bernhardt had an extraordinary trajectory from her beginnings at the Comédie Française to international stardom. In 1880 she undertook the first of nine American tours, which not only established an enduring relationship with audiences in this country but also with American theatrical pioneers like the Shubert brothers. Her brilliantly orchestrated career included the ownership of theaters and the supervision of each of her productions; it was also the product of her savvy cultivation of her public image. Her prescient deployment of technology extended to the first recording of her famous "golden voice" by Thomas Alva Edison at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Bernhardt was also the first major actress to perform on film, a technological novelty that at the time had little artistic cachet. To spectacular international acclaim, she went on to star in eight movies.

Among the most represented personages of her time, this extremely thin, frizzy-haired belle juive fascinated her contemporaries: she sat for many of the most fashionable artists of her time, was perhaps the most photographed woman in the world, and attached her name to products ranging from hair curlers to liqueurs. As if this were not enough, Bernhardt was herself a sculptor and painter, which simultaneously heightened her fame and made people suspicious of her manifold talents. Bernhardt's larger-than-life persona and her extraordinary success as actor and entrepreneur established the template for Hollywood icons as we know them. She was an inspiration for such figures as Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Nicole Kidman, and the contemporary stand-up comic, Sandra Bernhard, among others.

Alphonse Mucha (Czech, 1860-1939)
Sarah Bernhardt with Princesse Lointaine Crown, 1896
Lithographic poster, 26 1/4 x 19 in. (66.7 x 48.3 cm)
Collection of Norma Canelas and William D. Roth, Winter Haven, Florida and New York

Online Gallery text is excerpted from the catalogue, Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama, by Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver.

Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama is made possible through a leadership grant from the Jerome L. Greene Foundation. Major support was provided by Mildred and George Weissman.

Generous funding was also provided by the estate of Jordan Mayro, the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, The Grand Marnier Foundation, the Georges Lurcy Charitable and Educational Trust, the New York Council for the Humanities, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities*, Barbara G. Fleischman, Rita and Burton Goldberg, Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, The Mailman Foundation, Inc., the Maurice I. Parisier Foundation, Inc., Linda L. Janklow, and other donors.

The catalogue was made possible through the Dorot Foundation publications endowment.

*Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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