Sarah Bernhardt

Orfeas Katsoulis | Sep 14, 2022

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Sarah Bernhardt, born between 22 and 25 October 1844 in Paris 5th and died on 26 March 1923 in Paris 17th, is a French actress, painter and sculptor. She is considered one of the most important French actresses of the 19th and early 20th century.

Called by Victor Hugo "the Golden Voice", but also by others "the Divine" or "the Empress of the theater", she is considered one of the greatest French tragedians of the nineteenth century. The first international "star", she was the first actress to have made triumphant tours on the five continents, Jean Cocteau coining the expression "sacred monster" for her.


Sarah's mother, Judith-Julie Bernardt (1821-1876), a penniless milliner and daughter of a traveling Dutch showman, was a Jewish Parisian courtesan from Holland, known as "Youle" (short for Youlie, the German pronunciation of Julie). It is not known who her father was, as Sarah always kept silent about his identity. The names of Édouard Bernhardt or Paul Morel, a naval officer, are the most commonly suggested.

Due to the destruction of the civil status archives, the date of birth of Sarah Bernhardt is uncertain and debated. If her biographers usually give the dates 22 or 23 October 1844, some propose July or September 1844.

In addition, to facilitate the process of obtaining the Legion of Honor and prove the French nationality of the actress, a retrospective birth certificate is established by court decision on January 23, 1914, based on a baptismal certificate produced by Sarah Bernhardt, although the falsification of it has deceived no one, including the magistrates is dated September 25, 1844 and assigned to the registers of the 15th district. She declares herself the daughter of Judith van Hard and Édouard Bernhardt, a father who, according to different versions, belonged to a rich family of shipowners in Le Havre or was a law student there.

In the same way, the place of his birth is not more surely established: a plate mentioning his birth (October 25, 1844) is affixed to 5, rue de l'École-de-Médecine (former 11th), one also evokes the rue Saint-Honoré - to the 32 or to the 265 - or 22, rue de La Michodière (2nd).

Her first names - Sara Marie Henriette according to the reconstructed civil status - are also sometimes presented in a different order according to the sources, some indicating "Henriette-Marie-Sarah" or "Henriette-Rosine (Bernard)", according to the name she had given at the time of her enrolment at the Conservatoire, "Rosine (dite Sarah)".

A certain inclination of the actress to the affabulation concerning her life did not help to untangle the skein.


Sarah Bernhardt had at least three sisters and suffered for a long time from her mother's preference for her younger sister Jeanne-Rosine, also an actress. Abandoned by Youle who chose the social life in Paris, she spent a lonely childhood with a nurse in Quimperlé where she spoke only Breton. The Duke of Morny, her aunt's lover, provided for her education by enrolling her in the institution of Miss Fressard, then in 1853 in the convent of Grand-Champs in Versailles, where she studied until 1858. There she became a Catholic mystic. She played her first role, an angel in a religious show. She organized her conversion to the Catholic religion, received Christian baptism in 1857 and planned to become a nun.

It was then that her name was changed to "Bernard" and at the age of 14 she left the monastery and took the competitive examination at the Conservatory, where she was accepted. "Everyone had given me advice. No one had given me any advice. No one had thought of taking a teacher to prepare me".

She also took fencing lessons, from which she would benefit in her male roles as Hamlet.

Debut and engagement at the Comédie-Française

In 1859 she entered the Conservatoire d'art dramatique de Paris on the recommendation of the Duke of Morny in the class of Jean-Baptiste Provost. She graduated in 1862 with a second prize in comedy and entered the Comédie-Française, but was expelled in 1866 for having slapped a member of the staff, Miss Nathalie, who had violently pushed her sister who had stepped on her train.

At that time, the vice police counted Sarah among 415 "gallant ladies" suspected of clandestine prostitution.

She signed a contract with the Odéon. She was revealed there by playing Le Passant by François Coppée in 1869. In 1870, during the siege of Paris, she transformed the theater into a military hospital and treated the future Marshal Foch, whom she would meet again forty-five years later on the Meuse front, during the First World War. She triumphed in the role of the Queen of Ruy Blas in 1872, which made her nickname the "Golden Voice" by the author of the play, Victor Hugo, on the occasion of a banquet organized for the hundredth performance. This success led to her being recalled by the Comédie-Française, of which she was appointed member in 1875; she played in Phèdre in 1874 and in Hernani in 1877.

With the success, the eulogistic nicknames will multiply: "the Divine"...

Consecration and independence

In 1880, she resigned with great fanfare from the "Frenchman", having to pay him one hundred thousand gold francs in damages for improper breach of contract. She created her own company with which she left to play and make her fortune abroad until 1917. The first international "star", she was the first actress to have made triumphant tours on all five continents, Jean Cocteau coining the expression "sacred monster" for her. As early as 1881, on the occasion of a tour of Bernhardt in Russia, Anton Chekhov, then a columnist for the Moscow newspaper Le Spectateur, maliciously described "the one who has visited the two poles, who with her train has swept up and down the five continents, who has crossed the oceans, who more than once has risen to the heavens," and mocked the hysteria of the journalists "who no longer drink, no longer eat, but chase" after the one who has become "an obsession.

She interpreted several times male roles (Hamlet, Pelléas), inspiring Edmond Rostand his play L'Aiglon in 1900. She performed in London, Copenhagen, the United States (1880-1881) where she chartered a Pullman train for her troupe and its 8 tons of trunks, in Peru (1886) where all tickets for her performances were sold in 48 hours, in Chile (1886), whose inhabitants she criticized, and in Russia, especially at the Michel Theater in St. Petersburg (in 1881, 1892 and 1908). Her lyricism and her emphatic diction enthuse all the public. In order to promote her show, she met Thomas Edison in New York and recorded on cylinder a reading of Phèdre. She became one of the very few French artists to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles.

Invited to Australia in February 1891, she performed in Melbourne and met Adrien Loir, nephew of Pasteur, with whom she probably had an affair.

Collaboration with Oscar Wilde

On the day of Sarah's arrival in Folkestone with the Comédie-Française in May 1879, Oscar Wilde was there to greet her. The anecdote about him throwing lilies at her feet is often repeated, but Sarah's version of events suggests that he was reacting rather humorously to an unpleasant remark made at her expense:

"One of my classmates who was right next door, and who was far from liking me, said to me in a resentful tone:

When Oscar saw Sarah perform Phèdre at the Gaiety Theatre on June 2, 1879, he declared it "the most splendid creation I have ever seen. Nearly a decade later, he wrote: "It was not until I heard Sarah Bernhard in Phèdre that I realized absolutely how sweet Racine's music was. She inspired him to write a sonnet, beginning with the line: "How dull and boring this common world must seem to someone like you. It was published in The World in June 1879 under the title "To Sarah Bernhardt", and reprinted in Poems (1881) under the title "Phèdre".

On an entire wall of Oscar Wilde and Frank Miles' apartment at 13 Salibsury Street in London, just below the ceiling, Sarah writes "Sarah Bernhardt" in oversized letters with a large carpenter's pencil. Oscar tells his friend William Ward that Sarah "tried to see how high she could jump and write her name. He takes Lillie Langtry to the British Museum in search of ancient Roman statues that resembled "the divine Sarah". According to Lillie Langtry, Oscar named Sarah "Divine Sarah" after seeing her play the Queen in Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas.

Oscar thought of making her play the role of Elizabeth I, stating: "She would be beautiful in monstrous dresses covered with peacocks and pearls! She ordered the play Salome, which she played the title role in 1892.

Management of the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre

In 1893, she befriended de Max with whom she played Les Rois at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, and offered him to join the new troupe of the Théâtre de la Renaissance, which she was about to direct. She remounted some of his greatest successes (Phèdre, La Dame aux camélias) and created numerous plays: Gismonda by Victorien Sardou, La Princesse lointaine by Edmond Rostand, Les Amants by Maurice Donnay, La Ville morte by Gabriele D'Annunzio and Lorenzaccio by Alfred de Musset (never performed on stage before).

In 1899, she took over the direction of the Théâtre des Nations, which she renamed "Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt" and where she formed a new troupe with her acting partners Max and Marguerite Moreno, who shared with her a "corporal" vision of acting.

In opposition to her son, she supports Emile Zola at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, she supports Louise Michel and takes a stand against the death penalty.

On December 9, 1896, a "Sarah Bernhardt Day" was organized in honor of the actress by Catulle Mendès and other luminaries of the art: Edmond Rostand, Antonio de La Gandara who painted several portraits of her, Jean Dara, José-Maria de Heredia, Carolus-Duran. The whole of Paris flocked to the event: a meal for 500 guests at the Grand Hôtel preceded a gala at the Renaissance Theater - which she was directing at the time - where the actress was accompanied by 200 guests and where, among other tributes, a Hymn to Sarah composed by Gabriel Pierné to lyrics by Armand Silvestre and performed by the Colonne orchestra could be heard.

Having understood the importance of advertising, she stages every minute of her life and does not hesitate to associate her name with the promotion of consumer products. Her style and silhouette inspired fashion, decorative arts and the aesthetics of Art Nouveau. She herself called upon the painter Alfons Mucha to design her posters from December 1894. These six years of collaboration gave a second wind to her career. Tubercular like her sister Regina who died in 1874, she developed a certain morbidity by regularly resting in a padded coffin that was on display in her home. Faced with the scandal, she was photographed there by an operator from the Melandri studio to sell photos and postcards.

In 1905, during a tour of Canada, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier welcomed her in Quebec City, but Archbishop Louis-Nazaire Bégin, hating the theater and criticizing the actress for a new body language that could be described as erotic, asked his parishioners to boycott the performance and the actress, accustomed to crowds, performed in front of a partially empty room.

After playing in more than 120 shows, Sarah Bernhardt became a film actress. Her first film is The Duel of Hamlet made in 1900. It was one of the first attempts at talking pictures with the Phono-Cinema-Theater process, where a cylinder phonograph more or less synchronized the voice of the actress to the projected images. She made other films - silent - including two autobiographical works, the last being Sarah Bernhardt à Belle-Île in 1912, which describes her daily life.

Last years

In 1914, the minister René Viviani awarded her the Knight Cross of the Legion of Honor, for having, as an actress, "spread the French language throughout the world" and for her services as a nurse during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

Sarah Bernhardt had her right leg amputated in 1915, at the age of 70, due to tuberculosis of the knee. The first symptoms date back to 1887, when she injured her knee on the deck of a boat that brought her back from a tour in the Americas. This first dislocation, untreated, worsened in 1887, during repeated jumps from the parapet in the finale of La Tosca, the actress having fallen many times on her knees, then in 1890 following a new injury contracted during a performance of the Trial of Joan of Arc at the theater of Porte-Saint-Martin. In 1902, during a tour, a professor in Berlin diagnosed osteoarticular tuberculosis and prescribed a six-month immobilization that the actress could not bring herself to follow. She was content with infiltration sessions and, in 1914, a cure in Dax, which had no effect.

In September 1914, fearing that Sarah Bernhardt would be taken hostage during a possible German advance on Paris, the Ministry of War advised the actress to move away from the capital. Henri Cain, a close friend of hers whose wife, Julia Guiraudon, was the daughter of an oyster farmer in Biganos, recommended that she stay in the Arcachon basin, where he and his wife rented a villa in Andernos-les-Bains. She chose the villa "Eureka", where she lived from September 1914 to October 1915.

Plastered for six months, her knee developed gangrene. Her doctor and former lover, Samuel Pozzi, whom Sarah nicknamed "Doctor God", could not bring himself to perform the operation and sought the assistance of Professor Jean-Henri Maurice Denucé, now a surgeon in Bordeaux. The actress was amputated above the knee on February 22, 1915 at the Saint-Augustin clinic in Bordeaux. Sarah returned to Andernos in March 1915 to convalesce. She participated in a patriotic demonstration on August 10, 1915 where she read two poems and then left Andernos for good in October 1915. She went to Reims, "the city where one must be seen", on September 9, 1916 and played the role of a nurse in front of the martyred cathedral.

This did not prevent her from continuing to play sitting down - she refused to wear a wooden leg or a celluloid prosthesis - nor from visiting the poilus at the front in a sedan chair, earning her the nickname "Mother La Chaise". She never spoke of her infirmity, except to laugh: "I'm a guinea fowl! Her refusal of pretences did not make her neglect cosmetic surgery. In 1912, she asked the American surgeon Charles Miller for a facelift, a technique that was then in its infancy, the results of which were corrected by Suzanne Noël.

While she was shooting a film for Sacha Guitry, La Voyante, she died of "acute renal failure" at 56, boulevard Pereire in Paris, in the presence of her son. She is buried in Paris at the Père-Lachaise cemetery (44th division).

Dramatic style

Sarah Bernhardt's theatrical performance, which her contemporaries acclaimed as equal to that of Mounet-Sully, is, like the latter, emphatic both in pantomime and in declamation. The modulations of the voice are deliberately far from natural; the emotions are rendered, as well by the gesture as by the intonation, larger than life. This style, inherited from Baroque declamation, went out of fashion before the end of his career; Alfred Kerr remarked that "everything that comes out of his mouth is wrong; otherwise, everything is perfect. Modern critics who heard his 1903 recordings of Phèdre with Thomas Edison were often disappointed.

Painting and sculpture

Around 1874, while she was an actress with recognized talent, but lacking jobs that interested her, Sarah Bernhardt learned modeling, then painting. She attended the Académie Julian in Paris and presented at the 1880 Salon La Jeune Fille et la Mort, received "less as a result than as a promise".

She also made a few bronzes, including a bust of Emile de Girardin and one of Louise Abbéma, now on display at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

A self-portrait is exhibited in one of the rooms devoted to modern painting at the Fondation Bemberg in Toulouse.

The details of Sarah Bernhardt's private life are often uncertain; when she explained, "I am so thin, so skinny, that when it rains I go between the drops," Alexandre Dumas fils-who hated her-added in a discussion with the journalist Louis Ganderax, "She is such a liar that she is perhaps fat."

The private life of Sarah Bernhardt was quite eventful. At the age of twenty, she gave birth to her only child who would become a writer, Maurice Bernhardt, the result of an affair with a Belgian prince, Henri de Ligne (1824-1871), the eldest son of Eugène, 8th prince of Ligne. She subsequently had several lovers, including Charles Haas, a very popular socialite to whom she devoted a real passion while he treated her as a loose woman and cheated on her without any qualms. After their break-up, they remained friends until Haas' death. There are also artists such as Gustave Doré and Georges Jules Victor Clairin and actors such as Mounet-Sully, Lucien Guitry and Lou Tellegen or his "Doctor God" Samuel Pozzi. We also talk about Victor Hugo. Some sources also lend her homosexual liaisons, including with the painter Louise Abbéma. She was also portrayed by Gustave Doré, Giovanni Boldini and Jules Bastien-Lepage.

In 1874-1875, she had intimate relationships with several deputies for a fee, including Léon Gambetta, Henri Ducasse and the Count of Rémusat.

In 1882, she married a Greek actor, Aristides Damala (en) in London, but he was addicted to morphine and their relationship did not last long. She remained his lawful wife until the actor's death in 1889 at the age of 34. But she loses her French nationality by marrying a foreigner. So in 1916, she applied for reinstatement in French nationality.

She was a friend of the poet Robert de Montesquiou who had dedicated a poem to her (unpublished). This handwritten poem was part of his library sold in 1923.

In 1890, she was the victim of a robbery in her property in Le Havre while she was living in her villa in Sainte-Adresse. Several valuable objects were stolen, including a diamond of great value. For a while, she was suspicious of her housekeeper, Mrs. Guérard, who took care of her like an adoptive mother. The case was not solved and the actress did not get her hands on her precious diamond.

Disdaining the fashionable seaside resorts and wishing to establish her retreat in a place that was particular to her, away from the world, Sarah Bernhardt chose to stay facing the ocean, on a jagged and windy rocky point, far from the main town of an island in Brittany, Belle-île, itself relatively difficult to access and unknown at the time to the great tourism. It was her regular portraitist, Georges Clairin, who made her discover it. She gradually settled there with her exotic animals and her small court of guests - which she indiscriminately called "her menagerie" - in a disused military fortress that she had acquired in 1894 at a place called "La pointe des Poulains". Next to this fortress she had built, decorated and furnished the villa Lysiane (her granddaughter's name) and the villa Les Cinq Parties du monde, important works which cost her more than a million gold francs, a considerable sum for the time. She later moved to the manor house of Penhoët, a red brick manor house that disappeared during the bombings of the Second World War, which she had bought because she considered it too close to her fortress and also more comfortable. To get there, she took the train from Paris to Vannes, where she gave occasional performances, before embarking for "her" island where she made a great impression on the islanders. In 1922, infirm, sick and penniless, she sold her property in Belle-Ile. Since 2007, a museum has been dedicated to her: the fort at the Pointe des Poulains and its surroundings have been fitted out to receive the public.

She was the godmother of the French-American actress Suzanne Caubet. According to her 1886 passport, she was 1.54 m tall.

Her motto was "Even so" in reference to her audacity and her disregard for convention. When she was attacked by detractors about her origins after the defeat of 1871, she declared: "I am French, Sir, absolutely French. My whole family comes from Holland. Amsterdam is the cradle of my modest ancestors. If I have an accent, Sir (and I regret it very much), my accent is cosmopolitan, not Tudesque. I am a daughter of the great Jewish race, and my rather rough language is a result of our forced peregrinations.

She partly inspired Marcel Proust - no doubt along with the actresses Rachel and Réjane - to create the character of the actress "la Berma" in À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust sometimes referred to her in his correspondence as "Haras", her first name backwards.

Sacha Guitry, in his Memoirs, evokes it thus:

"Mrs. Sarah was a big part of our lives. After our father and our mother, she was certainly the most important person in the world in our eyes. That people describe with accuracy and humour - as Jules Renard did in his admirable Diary - her house, her meals, her surprising welcomes, her whims, her eccentricities, her injustices, her extraordinary lies, certainly, but that they want to compare her to other actresses, that they discuss her or blame her, that is not only odious to me: it is impossible to bear. They believe that she was an actress of her time. They do not guess that if she came back, she would be of their time.

- Sacha Guitry, If I have a good memory


"You must hate very little, because it is very tiring. One must despise a lot, forgive often, but never forget. Forgiveness cannot lead to forgetting; at least for me..."

This word is also attributed to him:

"Sarah Bernhardt, to whom a young actress said she had already performed several times and didn't even have stage fright anymore, is said to have replied: 'Don't worry, stage fright will come with talent'."

- Maurice Thévenet, The Talents

She is said to have earned some 45 million francs, or 185 million euros, during her career.

In her will, she declares that she bequeaths "all my real estate, jewels, recognitions at the Mont-de-Piété, furniture, knick-knacks, all my library, my silverware, my dresses, my linen, all that is in my hotel bl Péreire. Finally, there is not a strand of thread belonging to me that does not belong to my son, to whom I give everything.


At the Pointe des Poulains (Belle-Île-en-Mer), the fort, the Villa Lysiane and the Villa Les Cinq Parties du Monde are now accessible to the public as the Sarah Bernhardt Museum. The homes of the tragedienne are refurbished in their early twentieth century decor.

The Musée Carnavalet holds a gold medal bearing the effigy of Victor Hugo, executed by the engraver Jules-Clément Chaplain, which was offered to Sarah Bernhardt in 1911 for the hundredth performance of Lucrèce Borgia (ND 1080).

In Marcel Proust's Du côté de chez Swann, the young narrator ranks "in order of talent the most illustrious: Sarah Bernhardt, la Berma, Bartet, Madeleine Brohan, Jeanne Samary".


A Sarah Bernhardt school is located in Montpellier in the Hérault.

The Espace Sarah Bernhardt is located in Goussainville (Val-d'Oise).


For her centenary, a stamp was issued, with delay, on May 16, 1945. She is then in France the first actress honored in this way. There is also a stamp of Cuba (1989) and one (of the sesquicentennial) of Monaco (1994).

The character of Sarah Bernhardt appears in many works of fiction in contemporary popular culture.


In 2013, a documentary-drama, entitled Sarah Bernhardt, sa vie, ses folies (Sarah Bernhardt, her life, her follies), directed by Dominique Leeb, was devoted to her in the program Secrets d'Histoire.


  1. Sarah Bernhardt
  2. Sarah Bernhardt
  3. ^ Her own pronunciation, listen e.g. to on YouTube
  4. D'autres sources indiquent juillet ou septembre 1844, voire 1841 ou 1843. Cf. #Naissance.
  5. Orthographié sans « h », selon les actes de naissance de Sarah et de ses sœurs.
  6. Témoignage de ces incertitudes, les échanges publiés dans « L'Intermédiaire des chercheurs et des curieux ». Interrogée, à plusieurs reprises sur ce point de son vivant, Sarah Bernhardt n'a jamais répondu. Voir aussi Tierchant 2009, p. [réf. souhaitée].
  7. Elle ne reniera cependant jamais ses origines, comme l'indique le choix de son nom de scène et ses prises de position. Cf. lettre à M. Jouvin citée dans Jules Huret, Sarah Bernhardt, F. Juven, 1899 (lire en ligne), p. 30.
  8. Située au 245, avenue de la République, la villa a été détruite en 1978 pour faire place à l'ensemble immobilier « Les Vacances » ; la mention de la plaque qui y est apposée, « Ici se trouvait la villa Eurêka dans laquelle Sarah Bernhardt résida de 1915 à 1917 », est de fait erronée.[réf. nécessaire]
  9. a b c d e Bernhardt, 2017.
  10. Robert Gotlieb, New York Review of Books, 10 de maio de 2007.
  11. «Mulheres Ícones & Musas». Consultado em 20 de março de 2022

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