In the late 1860s, and reportedly to remedy boredom, Bernhardt turned to other creative outlets to subsidise performance, enlisting instruction in the arts of sculpting and painting. She sculpted for the remainder of her life and exhibited in London, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Paris. Unfortunately, only a few of her sculptures can be located today: a mere seven, out of an estimated forty works.
The present bronze is an inkwell, modelled as a self-portrait in the semblance of a sphinx. She has the body of a griffon, the wings of a bat and the tail of a fish; on her shoulders are the theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. This fantastical work of art serves as a metaphor for Bernhardt’s ability to transform herself for her performances and assume any guise. It would seem that Bernhardt sculpted the model in 1879, as a cast was shown in London that year and another in New York the following year. At this time, Bernhardt would have been rehearsing for the role of Blanche de Chelles in Le Sphinx; one can presume that the mysterious connotations of her character in the play resonated with Bernhardt and provided the inspiration for how to conceptualise herself.
This wonderfully imaginative bronze references contemporary Art Nouveau jewellery and the Symbolist aesthetic, as well as evoking Renaissance grotesque bronzes, for example the works of bronze master Andrea Riccio. As such, with an intentionally meta-theatrical design, the present bronze ‘performs’ many roles itself: it is an inkwell, a work of art, a monument to the concept of performance and perhaps most importantly a testament to Bernhardt’s sculpting skills and sensational imagination.
A larger version is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (inv. no. 1973.551a-d).
H.W. Janson and P. Fusco, The Romantics to Rodin. French nineteenth-century sculpture from North American Collections, exh.cat., Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles, 1980, pp. 141-143
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