Why actress Sarah Bernhardt was the first modern celebrity

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra in 1891
© RMN-Grand Palais (Orsay Museum) / Hervé Lewandowski

A century ago, mourners lined the streets of Paris, watching as black horses pulled chariots laden with flowers and a carriage carried the coffin of Sarah Bernhardt, the woman widely regarded as the first modern celebrity.

More than 100 years after her death in March 1923, the actress returns to the front of the stage on the occasion of a new exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris. Entitled “Sarah Bernhardt: And Woman Created the Star”, the exhibition presents nearly 400 objects, including posters, paintings, sculptures and costumes. According to a statement, it explores Bernhardt’s life from her birth in October 1844, when she was known as Henriette Rosine Bernard, to the height of her acting career, which took her in the whole world.

“Sarah Bernhardt was more than a famous actress,” co-curator of the exhibition Stephanie Cantarutti told Thomas Adamson of The Associated Press (AP). “She was one of the first celebrities. She was a businesswoman, a fashion icon, a sculptor, [a] theater director, visionary, courtesan. She pushed the boundaries between the sexes.

Georges Clairin, Sarah Bernhardt, 1876

Georges Clairin, Sarah Bernhardt1876

© Paris Museums / Petit Palais

By her early twenties, Bernhardt – the daughter of a Dutch Jewish courtesan – had realized her passion for performing. She entered acting school and began to play small roles in various productions. Noted for her performance in François Coppée The passer in 1869, she began performing regularly at the Comédie-Française, a 17th-century theater in Paris, and continued to play famous characters such as Joan of Arc, Phèdre, and Cleopatra.

Bernhardt’s strong-willed personality manifested itself both in her stage career and in her personal life. She consistently resisted societal expectations, possessing “a strong sense of self and an open determination to go her own way,” Sharon Marcus wrote for Voice in 2019.

Theresa Rebeck, who wrote a play centered on Bernhardt’s portrayal of the title role in Hamlettell it New York Times‘ Beatrice Loayza that the actress “was someone who claimed the right to be extraordinary”. And playing Hamlet in 1899 wasn’t the only time she played a male character.

A portrait of Louise Abbéma de Bernhardt

An 1885 portrait of Louise Abbéma by Bernhardt

© Paris Museums / Petit Palais

“She said that the roles given to women were not interesting enough and that she could not demonstrate all her talent by playing them, so she played many male roles,” Cantarutti told the AP. “She was ahead of her time.”

Bernhardt also bent gender roles beyond the stage, wearing pants when it was illegal for women to do so and having a romance with female artist Louise Abbéma.

Bernhardt never shunned the spotlight, even when his actions were seen as unseemly. She had a son out of wedlock and gave him her last name, affirming her status as a single mother. She once posed for a photo while sleeping in a coffin. Throughout her career, she easily capitalized on her fame, starring in ad campaigns and selling branded merchandise.

“She definitely understood the power of image, marketing and buzz, even when it was less than flattering,” Cantarutti said. vogueby Tina Isaac-Goizé.

Bernhardt wearing a bat hat circa 1899 or 1900

Bernhardt wearing a bat hat circa 1899 or 1900


This strategy worked: journalists followed Bernhardt everywhere and fans searched for her autograph wherever she went. By the time of her death at age 78 in 1923, she had acted in works on stage and screen, dabbled in sculpture, traveled five continents, and attracted the attention of writers like Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain.

Like Marcus, author of The drama of famenoted for Voice“Famous people have always been around, but Bernhardt modernized celebrity by understanding that stars wield power over equally powerful audiences and media.”

Annick Lemoine, director of the Petit Palais and co-curator of the exhibition, recounts the Time that Bernhardt “did what she wanted and didn’t care what other people thought. She loved both men and women. She traveled the world. She had a son out of wedlock and raised him as she wanted. She was not afraid.”

Sarah Bernhardt: And Woman Created the Star» is on view at Small palace in Paris until August 27.

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