Muse of Mine: Sarah Bernhardt
After discovering the sensuous, high-relief plaque by Sarah Bernhardt, Opehlia, I hungered to know more about its creator. What I soon discovered was a story of great passion and strength.
More commonly known as a celebrated actress in the late 19th century, Sarah was also a talented sculptress – often attacked for her “inappropriate” interest in the profession.
Born the illegitimate daughter of a courtesan, she was dependent on her mother’s patrons to receive backing for her placement in the Paris Conservatory (a college of music and dance). After graduation, she soon found unprecedented fame as an actress across all of Europe and even abroad. Her independent wealth grew to the point that, by 1870, she was able to provide a refuge for the injured soldiers of the Franco-Russian war.
After acquiring a studio in 1873, she went on to create and show a number of highly accomplished and emotionally charged works in both marble and bronze.
Photo Credit: National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay
Although her sculptures received public acclaim, several important artists of the time criticized her work. “She has the audacity to show this filth,” Auguste Rodin was heard saying at one of her shows.
With a rebellious and determined spirit, Sarah hired a photographer to capture her while confidently posing in her studio wearing a white trouser suit – a clear transgression of the appropriate feminine dress codes of the time. I admire the courage it would have taken to pave her own path in the face of such cultural hostility.
For all the seemingly dark subject matter that she explored, alongside her insatiable interest with death, she also brought to her work a curiosity and passion that demonstrated the positive attitude that Sarah had towards life.