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She was the illegitimate daughter and niece of Jewish prostitutes but in the course of a 60-year career "the Divine Sarah" Bernhardt (1844-1923) established herself as the world's premier tragedienne and was the first major stage actress to star in films. Born five years after the invention of photography, she pioneered its use to disseminate her image,
New York's Jewish Museum has just opened Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama, the first major museum exhibition in the United States devoted to the great French actress who embodied the art of the Belle poque.
The 250 item exhibition includes a selection of rare photographs of Bernhardt by the pioneering French photographer F lix Nadar taken when the actress was an unknown teenager; other vintage photographs of her as Hamlet, Camille, Cleopatra and Joan of Arc; sumptuous posters by the Art Nouveau designers, Alphonse Mucha and Jules Ch ret; a splendid crown studded with pearls designed by Alphonse Mucha and executed by Ren Lalique; an infamous publicity photograph of Bernhardt posing in her coffin (c. 1880); a letter Bernhardt wrote to Emile Zola in support of his defense of Alfred Dreyfus; a lithograph by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec of Bernhardt as the tragic heroine in Ph dre; paintings of the actress by prominent contemporaries; costumes including a gold-embroidered cape and a jewel-encrusted crown for Th odora as well as jeweled bracelets for Cleopatra; items from Bernhardt's personal wardrobe including an elegant ermine capelet, multi-colored embroidered kid gloves and a feathered fan; examples of sculpture by the multi-talented actress; a rare audio recording (c. 1900) of the actress performing an Edmond Rostand play, L'Aiglon (The Eaglet), about the son of Napoleon Bonaparte; film excerpts of the actress at home and performing such roles as Camille and Queen Elizabeth, highlighted by her first film - of the duel scene from Hamlet - made in 1900.
Also in the exhibition is a handkerchief embroidered with "Sarah," which has been passed down from Bernhardt to a distinguished line of American actresses, including Helen Hayes, Julie Harris, Susan Strasberg, and Cherry Jones.
When she was 10, Bernhardt was baptized a Catholic and given a convent school education, but was mercilessly attacked in the press for her supposedly Jewish features and behavior. A staunch defender of Alfred Dreyfus she wrote a letter in support of Emile Zola's publication of J'Accuse. At the same time she was a revered national figure, patriotically serving France during the Franco-Prussian War and World War I, even after she suffered the amputation of a leg.
Bernhardt rocketed to international stardom from beginnings at the Com die Fran aise, where she chafed under its traditionalism. In 1880 she undertook the first of nine American tours, which not only established an enduring relationship with American audiences but also with theatrical pioneers like the Shubert brothers. Her brilliantly self-orchestrated career included the ownership of theaters and the supervision of each of her productions; it was also the product of her savvy cultivation of her public image. Her deployment of technology extended to the first recording of her famous "golden voice" by Thomas Alva Edison at Menlo Park, New Jersey.
Bernhardt was also the first major actress to perform on film, a technological novelty that at the time had little artistic cachet. She went on to star in eight acclaimed silent movies and was working on one at the time of her death.
The skinny, frizzy-haired belle juive sat for many of the most fashionable artists of her time, and was perhaps the most photographed woman in the world, Cannily, she attached her name to products ranging from hair curlers to liqueurs. Bernhardt was herself a sculptor and painter, which simultaneously heightened her fame and made people suspicious of her manifold talents.
Bernhardt's larger-than-life persona and her extraordinary success as actor and entrepreneur established the template for Hollywood icons and she was an inspiration for such figures as Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Nicole Kidman, and the contemporary stand-up comic, Sandra Bernhard, among others.
A catalogue/book published by Yale University Press in association with The Jewish Museum accompanies the exhibition. The 232 page book, by guest curators Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver. has contributions by Janis Bergman-Carton, curator Karen Levitov, and Suzanne Schwarz Zuber, with 122 color and 73 black and white illustrations. The hardcover edition will be available for $50.00 from The Jewish Museum's Cooper Shop and bookstores worldwide. A paperback edition is available exclusively through The Jewish Museum's Cooper Shop for $35.00.