Sarah Bernhardt, Mucha’s Muse

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 Hollywood. 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 original diva is Sarah Bernhardt, the notoriously feisty one-legged prima donna and the most important influence in Alphonse Mucha’s career.

Sarah Bernhardt’s Early Life & Career

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. 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.”

Bernhardt & Alphonse Mucha

According to popular accounts, 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.

“Gismonda, the poster which Mucha created, was to revolutionize 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.”The Mucha Foundation

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 Medee, 1898, La Tosca, 1898, and Leslie Carter, 1908. 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.

Alphonse Mucha, Medee / Sarah Bernhardt, 1898. To be offered in our February 24 sale of Vintage Posters. Estimate $10,000 to $15,000.

Mucha’s haunting rendering of Bernhardt in Medee (above) is one of his most arresting designs. “Mucha’s exquisite design uses Medea’s arm and the dagger as a giant exclamation point, emphasized by the look of stark horror on her face as she exacts her gothic revenge. It is one of [Mucha’s] most powerful posters” (Lendl p. 53). Sarah Bernhardt was so enamored with the snake bracelet that Mucha depicted adorning her arm that she actually had one made by Fouquet for her to wear.

Mucha’s Designs for Bernhardt’s American Tours

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. For her multiple American Tours and World Tours, Bernhard reused the dynamic posters made for her earlier productions, including Gismonda and Lorenzaccio.

Later tours often featured adaptions of earlier Mucha productions, the rarely seen posters, feature entirely different titles and text, and the most obvious diversion from Mucha’s original—bright colors, compared with the subtle pastels from the earlier versions. The 1914-15-16 World’s Tour poster is a direct adaptation of Mucha’s La Dame aux Camelias (first & second image above). Another example of this is the large-scale poster adapted from Mucha’s 1898 design for the cover of L’Estampe Moderne (third image above). Sarah Bernhardt also used a smaller and less colorful version of this image to promote her first of three American tours starting in 1905 (fourth image above). However, the absence of Mucha’s signature suggests that these later designs were merely inspired by Mucha, but not created by his hand.

Later Years

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 a wooden leg. She continued to act until her death eight years later.

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.

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

Do you have an work featuring Sarah Bernhardt we should take a look at?

Learn about how to consign to an auction, and send us a note about your item.