This remarkable bust is an important rediscovery from the early sculptural oeuvre of Sarah Bernhardt. Celebrated as one of the greatest actresses of all time, Bernhardt was also recognised for her talent in the medium of sculpture, a passion which complemented her success as a stage artist. Although Bernhardt enjoyed a successful career as a sculptor, major works by her in marble survive in rare numbers. Hermione
is the most significant such sculpture by Bernhardt to come to the market for many years, together with her Ophelia
, which sold for £308,750 in Sotheby's Erotic
sale on 16 February 2017.
Born in Paris to a courtesan and an unknown father, Sarah Bernhardt received her first training as an actor at the Comédie-Française and, from 1866, developed a reputation on the stage at prestigious Parisian theatres. She soon found unprecedented fame across Europe and beyond, enjoying several worldwide tours during the 1880s and 1890s. Known in particular for her magisterial portrayals of tragic characters, Sarah Bernhardt’s legendary status continued into the early 20th century, when she starred in silent films and remained active on the stage until her death in 1923.
Bernhardt’s activity as a sculptor began in the 1870s with guidance from Roland Mathieu-Meusnier and Jules Franceschi. Taking a studio in 1873, she went on to model a number of highly accomplished works, many of which were exhibited at the Salon. Though she exhibited for many years, until the early 1900s, her most prolific period of sculptural activity was in the 1870s, when her employment at the Comédie-Française allowed her to devote time to working in the studio (see Mason, op. cit
., p. 268).
Bernhardt excelled particularly in the modelling of busts, for which she received acclaim from critics. In her 1907 memoirs, Bernhardt proudly speaks of friends and acquaintances sitting for her portrait busts in 1874 (My Double Life
, pp. 256-257). At Bernhardt’s London exhibition of 1879, it is her busts that stand out among her works, with one reviewer writing, ‘the “star” of the Comédie Française is preferable in busts. All these are expressive and characteristic […]’ (The Illustrated London News
, 21 June 1875, p. 583).
Dated 1875, the present bust was created the year after Bernhardt’s debut at the Salon. Contrasting with her rather traditional portrait busts, the present work is of a virtuosic and forceful nature, using symbolist imagery. It represents a fiercely frowning girl with wings in her hair and a pair of snakes writhing above her head. Bound loosely by a fillet, the girl’s abundant tresses flow untamed around her shoulders. Her powerful gaze is intensified by the extensive hollowing of the pupils and broad delineation of the eyebrows, hallmarks of an accomplished sculptural talent.
The bust appears to be unrecorded in Sarah Bernhardt’s documented oeuvre. It is just possible that it could be identified with the Bellone enfant
that was exhibited in London in 1879. In iconographic terms, however, this is unlikely, and it appears that this model depicted a child wearing a helmet (for a brief discussion, see Mason, op. cit.,
p. 311, n. 128). The clue to identifying the subject of the present bust seems, instead, to lie in the phrase 'Pour qui sont ces serpents qui sifflent sur vos têtes
?' ('for whom are those snakes that hiss above your heads'), with which the piece was associated when it was in a Belgian collection for three generations. This is a famous line from Jean Racine’s play, Andromaque
(1667), based loosely on Euripides’ Athenian tragedy of the same name. In 1873 Bernhardt successfully starred as the title character in Andromaque
, and she appears to have been inspired by its dramatic impact to create the present work. The bust almost certainly represents Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy, in a vision by Orestes following her suicide in guilt over Pyrrhus’ murder. Orestes, in love with Hermione and indirectly responsible for her suicide, is overcome by madness and sees visions of Hermione accompanied by the Erinyes, the vengeful female deities of the underworld. Near the closing verses of the play, he exclaims:
'What do I see? She kisses him… Hermione…
She’s come to snatch him from my deadly blow.
O God, how terribly she looks at me.
What fiends and snakes does she draw after her?
Daughters of Hades, are you ready now?
Who’ll meet those snakes that hiss above your heads?’
In her memoirs Bernhardt raves about Jean Mounet Sully’s portrayal of Orestes in the 1873 run of the play: ‘His entrance, his fury, his madness […] – how magnificent’ (op. cit., p. 249). That the actor’s powerful delivery of Orestes’ final speech inspired Bernhardt’s output as a visual artist is therefore not far-fetched. Bernhardt created several sculptures with theatrical subjects during her career, among them the marble relief of Ophelia (1880). It is interesting that Bernhardt made Ophelia years before ever playing the character on stage; the same is the case with the present work – though Bernhardt played Andromache in 1873, it was not until 1903 that she appeared in the role of Hermione. A parallel for the bust’s iconography is found in the work of another rare female sculptor of the age – Adèle d’Affry, Duchess Castiglione-Colonna, called Marcello (1836-1879) – who created several models of mythological women with snakes in their hair (Pythia, La Gorgone). As formidable and creative women in a patriarchal society, both Marcello and Bernhardt were clearly drawn to powerful female representations in their art.
1875 was also the year in which Sarah Bernhardt exhibited a portrait bust of her younger sister, Régina, at the Salon, praised as ‘une petite merveille de finesse et de distinction’ (L’Illustration, 1975, p. 386). Régina had died the previous year at the age of 19, having succumbed to tuberculosis. Bernhardt processed her grief by making sculpture, including the poignant group Après la Tempête (1876), which depicts an old fisherwoman mourning over the body of her grandson. The subject of the present bust is likely to have resonated with Bernhardt particularly after the death of her little sister, whom she had nursed during her final months. This may account in part for Hermione’s almost infantile features; though a teenager when she died, Régina was remembered affectionately by Bernhardt as a ‘chubby child’ with a ‘serious air’ in her memoirs (op. cit., p. 72).
Hermione epitomises the extravagance Sarah Bernhardt cultivated in both her professional and her personal life. Not content with being a star of the stage, Bernhardt made sculpture her second profession, pouring her passion for the theatre, her personal experience, and her penchant for all things dramatic into her highly creative artworks. This unique sculpture is a rare physical testament to Bernhardt’s dazzling personality.
My Double Life: Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt, London, 1907; A. Gold and R. Fizdale, The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhardt, London, 1992; M. E. Mason, Making Love/ Making Work: The Sculpture Practice of Sarah Bernhardt, doctoral thesis, The University of Leeds, May 2007, vol. II