Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Performing Art Nouveau: Sarah Bernhardt and the Development of Industrial Modernism

For roughly a century, Sarah Bernhardt’s centrality to modernism­ has been largely ignored. Her inspiration and patronage of the twirling, tendrilic forms of Art Nouveau­ is often discussed in relation to her capacity for self-promotion and commercialization rather than as evidence of a pioneering performance style that subsequently helped drive the theatre’s burgeoning intermediality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[1]  If we consider, in particular, Bernhardt’s early and active involvement in silent film (from1900 until the year of her death in 1923), then we can begin to appreciate the efforts she made to ensure that her theatre developed into a mass medium that could (and would) reach new international audiences at the opening of the twentieth century. In my view, this synergy between Bernhardt as a celebrity actress-manager on the stage and Bernhardt as a champion of nascent screen culture illustrates the productive and even surprising intermingling of the theatre and the visual arts in theatrical modernism. Although an established celebrity, Bernhardt, therefore, newly contributes to how and what we study in modernism. She is capable of enriching not only the materials we associate with the theatre, but the very modernism that her “brand” of fin-de-siècle theatre represents. 

In this context, I argue that Sunny Stalter-Pace’s discussion in this cluster of the theatrical copy—what is termed “imitation modernism”—might be amplified to include the technology of film so that a figure like Bernhardt is similarly framed in a centrifugal (rather than centripetal) analysis of theatrical modernism that moves outwards, spreading European stagecraft and performance abroad. Indeed, it was not just live performance but the technologies of reproduction associated with the theatre (photography, statuettes, posters, postcards and—particularly—film) that facilitated the spread of Bernhardt’s copied, satirized, and celebrated fame across Europe and America in the years prior to World War One.  Moreover, it was Bernhardt (as one of Europe’s most commodified cultural exports) that led this charge. In line with Olga Taxidou’s contribution to this cluster, we might accordingly regard Bernhardt’s films as performative experimentations that can be reconceived as intermedial modernist experiments or “ekphrastic machines.” Indeed, it is precisely because Bernhardt’s films paradoxically inhabit theatrical modernism’s trope of failure that they are removed from discussions of modernism, becoming eccentric to debate. This eccentricity—Bernhardt’s popular success on film, her demand that we see her in motion—returns us to Art Nouveau and reiterates the important question that glues this cluster together: how and what do we study in modernism?

Doing Things Differently

While Bernhardt is usually eccentric to discussions of theatrical modernism, she was nevertheless an actress who, as Sharon Marcus reminds us, “controll[ed] her career” and so exhibited agency in terms of the creative choices she made.[2] Her unusual use of her “golden voice” associates her with late-nineteenth-century experimentation and change. Indeed, her musical delivery of spoken theatrical text, often commented upon in the first decade of her appearance in theatres in Paris, can be seen as a nascent Symbolist expression of inner experience.  This unique use of the voice drew a new audience to the theatre in Paris. When Bernhardt first gained notoriety, she did so in the travesti role of Zanetto (a wandering Florentine minstrel) in François Coppée’s Le Passant (fig. 1).

Sarah Bernhardt in “Le passant” by François Coppée, 1869, photograph by W & D. Downey.
Fig. 1. Sarah Bernhardt in “Le passant” by François Coppée, 1869, photograph by W & D. Downey. Image courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

Performing this role in the Odéon Theatre in 1869, she drew for the first time to the Odéon “the students, midinettes and the artisans of the rive gauche (the left bank of the Seine), [who were] attracted by the strange music of that voice.”[3]

The youth of this new theatrical audience—soon known in Paris as les Saradoteurs—was matched by Bernhardt’s use of Paul Dubois’s 1865 statue, A Fifteenth Century Florentine Singer, for her choice of costuming in this role (fig.2).[4]

Paul Dubois, Maison Barbedienne, Chanteur florentin,1865, bronze, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Fig. 2. Paul Dubois, Maison Barbedienne, Chanteur florentin,1865, bronze, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As Richard Kendall suggests, A Fifteenth Century Florentine Singer was “arguably the most critically approved and popularly acclaimed emblem of youth” at the time.[5] This sculpture had recently won a medal of honor at the Salon of 1865, had been made into silvered bronze by order of the state, had been installed in the Musée du Luxembourg where the leading collection of modern painting and sculpture in Paris was then housed, and was mass produced (in different sizes) in bronze by the Barbedienne foundry and in porcelain by the Manufacture de Sèvres. In this way, even before the advent of the phonograph and film, Bernhardt modeled her costume and the look of her play on a transportable and exportable intermedial theatrical object. Theatrical modernism emerged not just through new expressive subjectivities—Symbolist theatre, original articulations of subjectivity, and so on—but in the mid-1860s it also emerged through Bernhardt’s new association with mechanical reproduction, industrialization, and transportable (and affordable) forms of celebrityhood.

Three years later after her success in Le Passant, Bernhardt re-opened the Odèon Theatre after it had been used as a military hospital during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. Playing the role of the Spanish Queen in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, she consolidated her celebrity within Paris (fig. 3).

Sarah Bernhardt as Doña Maria in “Ruy Blas” by Melandri, published by Wyman and Sons, woodburytype, 1879.
Fig. 3. Sarah Bernhardt as Doña Maria in “Ruy Blas” by Melandri, published by Wyman and Sons, woodburytype, 1879. Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London.

This time, the novelty of Bernhardt’s voice and dress elicited enthusiasm not just from les Saradoteurs, but from important social commentators. Praising Bernhardt’s performance, the important theatre critic for Le Figaro Francisque Sarcey, stated: “Never has delicious poetry been so sweetly spoken.” He went on to describe her use of movement and costume in terms that suggest that she was introducing to the stage the spiraling, tendrilic lines that would later be associated with Art Nouveau: “When she rises, when she makes a half turn, when she exits, the long folds of her silver spangled dress arrange themselves around her with poetic grace.”[6] Because today we largely associate Art Nouveau with decorative objects and design motifs, we overlook the impact that Bernhardt made when she introduced her turning torso as the principle for action on the live stage.

In terms that echo yet also significantly develop Bernhardt’s use of the Barbedienne foundry for her modeling of her role in Zanetto, a statue commemorating Bernhardt in Ruy Blas was available for purchase. As a photograph of this statuette in the Harry Ransom Center indicates, this mass-produced product was engraved with Sarah Bernhardt’s name in capital letters on the base of the foot cushion across which her dress is draped. “Ruy Blas” is inscribed beneath this, on the statuette’s base. As Bernhardt’s turning head suggests, Bernhardt’s physical action initiated her emerging association with the tendrilic curve that would later epitomize Art Nouveau.

La Dame aux Caméias and Le Modern-style

It is no coincidence that in 1880, when Bernhardt began to establish herself as a unique theatrical attraction, she embarked on a tour to North America where she chose to play the premier role of Marguerite Gautier, Alexandre Dumas fils’s La Dame aux Camélias. This 16-year-old courtesan became her most performed role in the theatre. Working her tendrilic curve into a signature spiral that concluded the play’s death scene (where Marguerite dies of consumption in her lover’s arms), Bernhardt made the role physically her own. In this example, she used her body as a pivot to rotate around her lover.

While Bernhardt suggested that it was by chance that she incarnated the spiraling, circular art nouveau line in such an innovative and spectacular way, it is telling that, once achieved, it was not discarded.[7] Indeed, when Bernhardt first performed La Dame aux Camélias in London in 1881, it was her spiralling death that was commented upon: 

Mme Bernhardt stands—it is the movement imprinted, stamped in the [theatrical] program—but instead of sitting herself down again for her last words, and murmuring them seated, as was the tradition, she remains standing, breathing life in with all the strength of her being, defying death. Then, using herself as a pivot, she reels and makes a half-turn and, as if finally vanquished, she falls from her height in the most elegant and poetic pose imaginable.[8]

Over a decade later, Bernhardt became the patron and sponsor of Alphonse Mucha—then a little-known illustrator employed by the Parisian printing shop, Lemercier. Asked to design posters for her, he used the gestural turns of Bernhardt’s live theatrical acting to pioneer the graphic art of art nouveau (fig. 4).

Alphonse Mucha, Gismonda, lithograph, 1894.
Fig. 4. Alphonse Mucha, Gismonda, lithograph, 1894. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

These posters give evidence of Bernhardt’s body being used as an instrument to materialize a new art form. Indeed, the second work that Mucha was commissioned to make in 1896 accentuated—through the long verticality of his poster—the tendrilic lines of La Dame aux Camélias (fig. 5).

Alphonse Mucha, La Dame aux Camélias, lithograph, 1896.
Fig. 5. Alphonse Mucha, La Dame aux Camélias, lithograph, 1896. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Set against a star-filled background, Bernhardt is a star or “divine” being. Bernhardt is also, however, a courtesan who dies on the stage in this role. Dressed entirely in white, she is sexually promiscuous and predatory. Oscillating between contrasting terms, Bernhardt is a woman who ushers in artistic change, heralding her own physical and semantic flexibility. While Art Nouveau can be associated with decorative interiors (the furniture shops of Louis Majorelle, Siegfried Bing’s eponymous Maison de l’Art Nouveau) and public design initiatives (Hector Guimard’s entrances to the Paris Métro), it is clearly also a style whose relevance to modernism must be viewed relationally and centrifugally, in terms of expanding audiences for the theatre as well as for its commercial products. 

Dubbed the “style sarahbernhardtesque,” Mucha’s posters were seen as the embodiment of “le modern-style.”[9] Modern and mass-consumable, these advertisements of Bernhardt replaced the traditional yellow or blue theatrical poster. Inside the theatre, Bernhardt facilitated and developed new ways of performing; outside the theatre, employing a young and little-known artist, she boldly confirmed her theatre’s creative independence. While Bernhardt had already been visually reproduced in photographs, prints, newspapers and statuettes, Mucha’s posters caused an immediate sensation in Paris. Changing the theatrical poster from a monochromatic print to a visually arresting affirmation of celebrity and theatrical impact, Mucha positioned Bernhardt and her Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt at the helm of modern commercial and artistic innovation.

The Moving Pictures: Theatrical Change and Commerce

It is in this context of Bernhardt challenging the theatre’s performance and publicity traditions that her involvement in early film can be understood. As The Moving Picture World boasted in 1912,

World Famous Emotional Actress . . . Sarah Bernhardt in Camille is the greatest money-making proposition in the history of motion pictures. Her great name is famous in every part of the world. Her art is unsurpassed. Superior to any actress on the stage. She has chosen one of her greatest successes, Dumas’ “Camille,” which shows every fibre of talent in this wonderful woman . . . you require only a machine and a picture screen, in giving a production of merit of the highest class. An entertainment for all classes.[10]

Directed by André Calmettes and Henri Pouctal for the Film d’Art, the film was released in America as part of a double bill (fig. 6).

Double page advertisement, The Moving Picture World, February 17, 1912, 596–97.
Fig. 6. Double page advertisement, The Moving Picture World, February 17, 1912, 596–97.

Appearing alongside Gabrielle Réjane in Mme Sans-Gene, Bernhardt was featured as “The World’s Greatest Accomplishment in the History of the Motion Pictures” and as “the Divine Sarah, the World Renowned Emotional Actress” (fig. 7)

Double page advertisement, The Moving Picture World, February 10, 1912, 498–99.
Fig. 7. Double page advertisement, The Moving Picture World, February 10, 1912, 498–99.

Newly available to audiences who might not get to see her on the live stage (and now able to perform without the strain of physical presence and “live-ness” in her advancing age) Bernhardt affirmed her importance as an aesthetic, industrial and commercial leader of theatrical modernism. Indeed—and as the Moving Picture News reports—Bernhardt could enter film because she had autonomy as an actress. The Moving Picture News states that, in contrast to Bernhardt’s freedom, “American actors are, by the terms of their contracts with the stage barons, debarred from screen work.”[11]

For the film, scenes were cut, action accelerated, and the duration of La Dame aux Camélias reduced from well over three hours to just under 40 minutes (the length of the film was 2. 275 feet). The French Art Nouveau movement is evident here, in this focus on Bernhardt’s circulation as a compact industrial and commercial product that could be enjoyed by global audiences in their quotidian life. In this sense, Bernhardt’s film became an art nouveau product par excellence. It joined other Art Nouveau products, products that were copied and exported, and that expanded French presence and visibility abroad. Camille also expressed the tendrilic curving lines of the Art Nouveau spiral in Bernhardt’s physical acting.

Bernhardt spirals to her death, Camille, 1911.Bernhardt spirals to her death, Camille, 1911.

Bernhardt spirals to her death, Camille, 1911.
Fig. 8–10.  Bernhardt spirals to her death, Camille, 1911. Images courtesy National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, Canberra.

The fact that Bernhardt’s famous death scene remains intact in the film is therefore important. We see Armand enter her bedroom, their final embrace, and Bernhardt spiral to her death with a white gown billowing around her. Even after she has come to a standstill—when she is stretched out dead on the floor—her legs are encased in a swath of twisting, spiraling material.

The following year, Bernhardt went on to make Les Amours de la Reine Élisabeth. Directed by Henri Desfontaines and Louis Mercanton, this work was released in America by Adolph Zukor and Charles Frohman’s newly formed Famous Players film company. Enjoying a similar success to Camille, this film helped to open the market for legitimate motion picture theatre exhibition in the United States. Zukor, reflecting on Bernhardt’s agreement to enter narrative film, stated that her film helped break the “prejudice of theatrical people toward the screen.”[12] Charles Musser extends this idea, arguing that Bernhardt was “fascinated yet disconcerted” when she embraced media practices between 1911 and 1913: “Her work mobilized interrelationships and convergences among cultural forms that had certainly existed, but not in that way or to that degree.”[13] Although I agree with Musser’s identification of Bernhardt’s achievements, I disagree with his characterization of her. In my view, Bernhardt engaged with cinema as a seasoned theatrical manager who was long accustomed to seeing herself fragmented across media.[14] She was not “fascinated yet disconcerted” by film; she was instead an active agent who chose to bring her performances to international audiences who were increasingly linked through shared commercial and industrial culture.

Building the Bernhardt Business

By the time Bernhardt entered film in the early 1910s, she was an actress-manager who had negotiated the terms of her commercial appearance for well over forty years. Indeed, when Bernhardt resigned from the Comédie-Française in 1879, she did so on the heels of a successful tour in London. In the Gaiety Chronicles of 1898, John Hollingshead explains that it was she realized her commercial value on this first tour that she “offered to come back the following year, and bring with her a selected company.”[15] It was therefore Bernhardt’s business acumen—her willingness to branch out on her own and determine the course of her theatrical career—that enabled her to establish international celebrity. What this change marked was not just a new freedom to build global audiences, but the capacity to choose the theatrical roles as well as her cast and costume. In these changed circumstances, Bernhardt became famous for her performance of death, choosing to perform characters such as Frou Frou, Marguerite Gauthier, Phèdre, and Adrienne Lecouvreur. She also became famous for her creative collaborations: she worked with young and little-known dramatists such as François Coppée and Jean Richepin just as she worked with playwrights such as Victorien Sardou who wrote plays (such as La Tosca) specifically for her.

In her changed post-Comédie-Française context, Bernhardt also determined when and how she would engage with new technologies. It is telling that on her first tour to North America in 1880–1881 she visited Thomas Edison in Menlo Park and recorded herself on tinfoil. This would be followed by later recordings: in 1896 she made two cylinders for Gianni Bettini in New York, followed in 1902 by five Pathé cylinders. In 1903 she made records with the Gramophone and Typewriter Company as well as the American Zonophone Company. Bernhardt continued to record her voice until 1918. This concern to make her voice a transportable commodity available to audiences at home was matched by her desire to make her image available for purchase to audiences. Again on her first tour to America, Bernhardt had numerous photographic portraits made of herself by Napoleon Sarony in New York. While these made her familiar to foreign audiences, functioning as a form of advance publicity, they also sold as local keepsakes. As a playbill at the Globe Theatre in Boston explained, “Photographs of M’lle Sarah Bernhardt, taken from life in this country by [Napoleon] Sarony, are for sale by the Libretto Boys in the Theatre.”[16] During this tour, Bernhardt was also written about, caricatured, sketched, and reproduced in newspaper articles, advertisements, and magazines.[17]  

While I argue that Bernhardt managed her career when she left the Comédie-Française, her status as an actress-manager was not formalized until more than a decade later. When the Paris Théâtre de l’Ambigu was leased on Bernhardt’s return from America in 1882, it was widely understood that her son, Maurice Bernhardt, was listed as manager of the theatre in name only. As Sarcey noted, Bernhardt “regulated everything, ordered everything, did everything . . . she welcomed [playwright Jean] Richepin as she did Catulle Mendès, because Richepin is a young man, because he is a poet, because all the [other] directors had refused [him].”[18] Sarcey argued that Bernhardt was the director of the “Théâtre Modern” who might also “call herself the Director with a capital ‘D’ and nothing more. The Director of public opinion, favor, and fame, the media publicist, the great hypnotist of a time that she has captivated and that submits irrevocably to her charm.”[19]

This entrepreneurship also marked Bernhardt’s management of the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin (1883–1890), Théâtre de la Renaissance (1893–1899) and the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt (until her death). At the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin she instigated a classical repertoire as well as commissioning new pieces from young artists. At the Théâtre de la Renaissance Bernhardt began to direct every aspect of rehearsal herself. As John Stokes explains, she was “always in search of new effects. She also claimed to have borrowed from English and American administrative practices to bring Paris theatre-going up to date.”[20] In this widened ambit of the active manager-director, Bernhardt marks the extent to which theatrical administration is implicated in theatrical modernism.

On the Margins of Modernism

Given Bernhardt’s tremendous artistic, managerial and commercial achievements, how might we explain the lack of attention paid Bernhardt within discussions of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century modernism? Andreas Huyssen offers some answers when he notes in his famous 1986 article “Mass Culture as Woman” that late-nineteenth-century female artistic achievement was misread, denigrated, or ignored by contemporaries. Huyssen explains that modernism saw the persistent gendering as feminine of that which is culturally and socially devalued. In late-nineteenth-century bourgeois society, popular literature (the serialized feuilleton novel, magazines) as well as the theatre was part of this devaluation. The theatre was viewed as “one of the few places which allowed women a prime place in the arts, precisely because acting was seen as imitative and reproductive, rather than original and productive.”[21] Discussing Friedrich Neitzsche’s 1888 polemic against Wagner in the context of the theatre, Huyssen quotes Neitzsche: “In the theatre one becomes people, herd, female, pharisee, voting cattle, patron, idiot–Wagnerian” (“Mass Culture,” 51).

Huyssen highlights the combined hierarchy of gender and theatre in the late- nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century history of modernism. Today when we examine modernism on the stage, we therefore need to recall not just that Bernhardt implemented change on the live stage; she also consolidated theatre’s connection to a range of new technologies and networks. These technologies and networks are precisely those areas of business, industry and science that are so often gendered male in histories of modernism. We would therefore  do well to recognize that theatrical modernism—at least Bernhardt’s particular and eccentric theatrical modernism—articulated female agency. It spearheaded the development of Art Nouveau within and beyond France, developing new ways in which the visual arts could join with the theatre to circulate in global markets.  In this way and through her own particular efforts, Bernhardt helped spearhead theatrical modernism. Through a study of her work we can enrich the materials we associate with the theatre and interrogate the methods that we bring to a historical analysis of theatrical modernism.


[1] See, for example, Janis Bergman-Carton, “‘A Vision of a stained-glass Sarah’: Bernhardt and the Decorative Arts,” in Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver, Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 99–123. Sharon Marcus has recently discussed Bernhardt’s use of the spiral within the context of what she terms “exteriority effects.” While Marcus does not concern herself with the movement of these effects through intervisual culture and onto to film she nevertheless accrues Bernhardt agency as a physical actress on the stage. See Sharon Marcus, “Sarah Bernhardt’s Exteriority Effects,” Modern Drama 60, no. 3 (2017): 296–321.

[2] Sharon Marcus, “Salomé!! Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, and the Drama of Celebrity,” PMLA 126, no. 4 (2011): 999–1021, 1000–1001.

[3] Suze Rueff, I Knew Sarah Bernhardt (London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1951), 48.

[4] See Rueff, I Knew Sarah Bernhardt, 48–49.

[5] Richard Kendall, Degas and the Little Dancer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 29.

[6] Francisque Sarcey, “Chronique Théatrale,” Le Temps, February 26, 1872, 2. All translations my own.

[7] See her comments in “The Gentle Art of Making Love: A Talk with Madame Sarah Bernhardt,” Home Chat, October 12, 1895, 139, where she states: “Sometimes, however, I attain an effect through an accident. Once, for instance, in America, I was rehearsing the death scene in La Dame aux Camelias. It was very warm, and I tried over and over again, until I threw myself back into Armand’s arms in desperation. Inadvertently I had found what I wanted, and night after night Marguerite died in that way.”

[8] Francisque Sarcey, “Le représentations françaises a Londres,” Le Temps, June 20, 1881, 2.

[9] Ernest Pronier, Une vie au Théâtre: Sarah Bernhardt (Geneva: Alex. Jullien, 1942), 322.

[10] Advertisement for “Camille,” Moving Picture World, February 17, 1912, 596–97, 596.

[11] G. F. Blaisdell, “From the Observatory,” Moving Picture News, September 23, 1911, 20–21, 20.

[12] Adolph Zukor, The Public is Never Wrong (London: Cassell and Co. Ltd., 1954), 47.

[13] Charles Musser, “Conversions and Convergences: Sarah Bernhardt in the Era of Technological Reproducability, 1910–1913,” Film History 25, no. 1–2 (2013): 154–75, 167.

[14] See Musser, “Conversions and Convergences,” 166.

[15] John Hollingshead, Gaiety Chronicles (Westminster: Archibald Constable and Co., 1898), 371.

[16] See Harry Ransom Collection, Sarah Bernhardt Collection (SBHRC), Box 8, folder 8.2, dated 18 December, 1880. This same information was repeated on other December programs at the Globe theatre. See SBHRC, Box 8, folder 8.11, dated 8 December 1880. I would like to thank the Center for awarding me a very productive fellowship residency in 2017.

[17] See Patricia Marks, Sarah Bernhardt’s First American Theatrical Tour, 1880–1881 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2003) about the media attention on her tour.

[18] Francisque Sarcey, “Chronique Théatrale,” Le Temps, January 29, 1883, 1.

[19] “La Vie a Paris,” Le Temps, November 24, 1882, 3.

[20] John Stokes, Michael Booth and Susan Bassnett, Bernhardt, Terry, Duse: The Actress in Her Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 23. For a longer discussion of Bernhardt’s status as an actress-manager see Victoria Duckett, “The Actress-Manager and the Movies: Resolving the Double Life of Sarah Bernhardt,” Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film 45, no. 1 (2018): 27–55.

[21] Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism’s Other,” in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 44–62, 51.