Sarah Bernhardt, Mucha’s Muse

This post was written by Associate Cataloguer & Administrator for Vintage Posters Sarah Shelburne for our January 26 auction, Alphonse Mucha & Masters of Art Nouveau: The Harry C. Meyerhoff Collection.

 

Imagine, if you will, the most famous actress you can think of: accomplished, multifaceted, beautiful, and globally recognized. Odds are you’re thinking of someone from this list. Now imagine her with one leg, in the midst of an illustrious career, being carried around in an ornately decorated sedan chair, and continuing to perform despite any perceived disability — all to great acclaim. It is 1915, and this O.G. diva is Sarah Bernhardt, the notoriously feisty one-legged prima donna and the most important influence in Alphonse Mucha’s career.

 

Lot 179: Napoleon Sarony, Sarah Berhardt, pair of promotional photographs, 1891. Estimate $300 to $400.

Lot 179: Napoleon Sarony, Sarah Bernhardt, pair of promotional photographs, 1891. Estimate $300 to $400.

 

Born Henriette-Rosine Bernard in 1844 Paris to a Dutch courtesan, the young ingénue grew up surrounded by the opulence and scandal of her mother’s world. At 18, she changed her name and made her stage debut in Racine’s Iphigenia, beginning her storied rise to stardom. With an unquenchable desire to dominate the theatrical world, Bernhardt attacked each role with a fervor that left the audience captivated.

 

Lot 195: Alphonse Mucha, Sarah Bernhardt / American Tour, 1896. Estimate $7,000 to $10,000.

Lot 195: Mucha, Sarah Bernhardt / American Tour, 1896.
Estimate $7,000 to $10,000.

 

According to popular accounts, the Bernhardt and Mucha met in 1894 when the artist was correcting proofs at a printing workshop. Bernhardt reportedly called with a last-minute poster demand, and Mucha was asked to fulfill the order. According to the Mucha Foundation:

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Gismonda, the poster which Mucha created, was to revolutionise poster design. The long narrow shape, the subtle pastel colours and the ‘halo’ effect around the subject’s head were to remain features of Mucha’s posters throughout his life. Most importantly, these elements combined with the stillness of the near life-size figure to introduce a note of dignity and sobriety to what had been up to then garish street-art, qualities which were quite startling in their novelty. The effect created was astonishing and the poster so popular with the Parisian public that collectors bribed bill stickers to obtain them or simply went out at night and, using razors, cut them down from the hoardings.

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The poster was later repurposed for her 1896 American tour (above). Bernhardt was so enthralled that she commissioned several more posters for her productions over the years including Medee1898, La Tosca1898, and Leslie Carter1908.

 

Lot 197: Alphonse Mucha, Leslie Carter, 1908. Estimate $5,000 to $7,500.

Lot 197: Mucha, Leslie Carter, 1908.
Estimate $5,000 to $7,500.

 

Both the actress and Mucha were talented and enterprising, and both were indebted to the other for their decades of collaboration and friendship. Mucha’s best-known work is largely populated by incarnations of Bernhardt’s characters, each sleek and imposing, adorned with the style and intricacies of his masterful Art Nouveau hand. Bernhardt’s professional image was literally crafted by her talented friend, and it paved the way for her widespread popularity. Just as her career was bolstered by his artistic support, Mucha’s early success hinged on the advertising opportunities given to him by his enigmatic, headstrong and eternally fascinating muse.

 

Lot 96: Alphonse Mucha, La Tosca, 1898. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000.

Lot 96: Mucha, La Tosca, 1898. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000.

 

Considered one of the first true celebrities, Bernhardt’s entire life was public knowledge, and so subjected to public scrutiny. She used her public notoriety to bring attention to her pursuits. As highlighted by NPR, “She morphed from a figure of scandal, as the fatherless daughter of a Jewish courtesan, who was promiscuous herself (Bernhardt started an affair with Victor Hugo when he was 70 and she was 27), into a magnificent artist — and then into a symbol of, and ambassador for, France.”

 

Lot 95: Alphonse Mucha, Medee / Sarah Bernhardt, 1898. Estimate $12,000 to $18,000.

Lot 95: Mucha, Medee / Sarah Bernhardt, 1898.
Estimate $12,000 to $18,000.

 

Bernhardt trusted Mucha’s eye so much that she also had him create set designs and costumes for the plays, transferring her glorified poster surroundings to the reality of her performances. These works were so successful for each that both Bernhardt and Mucha reused the images in different variations. Bernhardt’s American Tour1896 and World Tour, circa 1914, reused the dynamic posters made for Gismonda and Lorenzaccio, respectively, decades after their creation, while Mucha continued to make smaller ephemera, promotional materials and independent works such as Lefèvre-Utile1903.

 

Lot 102: Alphonse Mucha, Lefèvre - Utile / Sarah Bernhardt, 1903. Estimate $5,000 to $7,500.

Lot 102: Mucha, Lefèvre – Utile / Sarah Bernhardt, 1903.
Estimate $5,000 to $7,500.

 

Throughout her 60-year career on the stage, and later on the screen, “Divine Sarah,” as she was known, played every notable role available to her: as Joan of Arc, Hamlet or Queen Elizabeth, she drew the praise of crowds wherever she went.

She severely hurt her leg during a performance of La Tosca in 1914, to her own severe irritation. She was so distressed at her inability to continue performing, and her impatience at the lengthy recovery time she was experiencing, that she resolved to have the leg cut off so that she could get back to what mattered most — her acting. In February 1915, she wrote to her surgeon (and lover) Samuel Pozzi, asking him to remove the limb immediately. She had a customized sedan chair made so she could be carried around, rather than suffering the indignity of hobbling on a wooden leg. She continued to act until her death eight years later.

 

 

Lot 196: Alphonse Mucha, World Tour of M'me. Sarah Bernhardt, circa 1914. Estimate $7,000 to $10,000.

Lot 196: Mucha, World Tour of M’me. Sarah Bernhardt,
circa 1914. Estimate $7,000 to $10,000.

 

While her climb to infamy could never be attributed to anyone but Bernhardt herself, her reliance on Mucha’s promotional imagery was an integral and brilliant strategy to cultivate her celebrity indefinitely. Mucha’s posters bolstered Bernhardt’s dissemination, appeal and success, and her career allowed the young designer to master of one of the most influential artistic and design movements of all time. Together they spawned decades of cultural innovation and expression, effectively molding French identity at the turn of the century.

 

More stunning images of Sarah Bernhardt can be found in our catalogue.

 

Sources: NPR, “Sarah Bernhardt’s Dramatic Life, Onstage And Off,” 2010; The Mucha Foundation, “Mucha at a Glance,” 2017; History Today, “Sarah Bernhardt’s Leg,” 2015