The French actress Sarah Bernhardt, arguably the most celebrated actress of the nineteenth century, is all but forgotten today. But during her era, Bernhardt had connections (and, indeed, supported and inspired) not one but two of the most famous artists in history: Oscar Wilde and Alphonse Mucha (who are also, naturally, the subjects of some of our books)!
Bernhardt made her fame on the stages of France in the 1870s. A legend both on the stage and in her personal life, Bernhardt was renowned for her eccentric behaviour and the extreme measures she took to inhabit each of her characters, even going so far as to sleep in a coffin in order to understand her tragic heroine roles.
As the legend goes, Bernhardt was sent to the famous school of dramatic art in Paris, the Comédie-Française, after demonstrating great passion in her quest to become a nun. Her first stage appearance with the Comédie-Française, in 1862, was in Racine’s Iphigénie. Within seven years she was performing in Le Passant by poet François Coppée, a play that ran for over 100 nights and, at Napoleon’s request, was even performed at the Tuileries Palace.
By this point, Bernardt was in demand all over Europe and in New York. As one of the most famous performers of the era, she developed a reputation as a serious dramatic actress and earned the title “The Divine Sarah.”
In 1879, Oscar Wilde saw Sarah Bernhardt performing in Phedre when the Comédie-Française visited London. Wilde instantly adored Bernhardt, as did the rest of London, and she was enthusiastically applauded and embraced as an international star.
Wilde became a personal friend of Bernhardt’s and composed lead parts for her in his works Vera and Salomé.
Rehearsals for Salomé’s debut on the London stage began in 1892, but were halted when England’s licensor of plays banned the work on the basis that it was illegal to depict Biblical characters on the stage.
The premiere of Salomé finally took place in Paris in 1896 while Wilde was in prison. The Paris production is famous for the bold statement it made in favour of Wilde’s sexual freedom and artistic licence.
Bernhardt, Mucha and Art Nouveau
In 1894, the manager of the Theatre de la Renaissance called the unknown Czech painter Alphonse Mucha’s printing shop to ask if anyone would be able to design a poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s play Gismonda, as their own artist was ill. It was said that at Bernhardt’s instruction, the poster was to be composed, executed and displayed in Paris, all within five days.
Mucha responded to the challenge, creating a poster that caused a sensation in Paris and made him an overnight success, and Bernhardt immediately signed an exclusive six-year contract with Mucha.
During this period Mucha created the posters for La Dame aux Camélias (1896), Lorrenzaccio (1896), La Samaritaine (1897), Médée (1898), Hamlet (1899) and Tosca (1899). The posters, all done in the inimitable “Mucha style,” helped to spread Bernhard’s popularity beyond the borders of France.
“The Beautiful Era”: Culture, Progress, & Carefree Attitudes
Bernhardt, Wilde and Mucha were all artists representative of La Belle Époque–the Beautiful Era–an expression that describes the period in Europe after the Franco-Prussian war to the start of World War I: the years from 1890 to 1914. It equates loosely to the “Gilded Age” of the USA, for the same period and reasons. Cultural expansion, carefree attitudes and a faith in progress were the hallmarks of La Belle Époque.
In principle, people living in this period were materially confident and culturally optimistic, with the perception of stability providing the basis for growth and innovation in arts, science and culture. Standards of living and security for the upper and middle classes increased significantly (leading to it retrospectively being labelled as a golden age by them). However, generally people of all classes were seized by the feeling of a new start into better times, wanting to stop old-fashioned traditions and to participate in progress.
To read more about Alphone Mucha and the collection of writing journals we’ve created featuring his artwork, go our article about Alphonse Mucha.