This is a photograph of an exotic looking Sarah Bernhardt, taken when she was about 21 years old. Bernhardt was one of the first world wide celebrities, and enjoyed tremendous success as a stage actress during the late 1800s and even into the early 20th century. Her acting credits included appearances in early silent films.
Born of Jewish French parents, Bernhardt hid her origins and ethnicity through an elaborate system of lies and obscurations. A tireless self promoter, she became famous and rich in Europe and America, and enjoyed a long and successful career from her early twenties to her death at age 78.
Apart from her own talents as an actress and self promotion, Bernhardt played an interesting role in the lives of very many artists, writers and important personages, both as a lover and a muse. Her love life reads as a who’s who of the intelligentsia, social climbers and old money.
When she was 20 years old, Bernhardt had an affair with a Belgian nobleman, by whom she had her only child. Later she became the lover of various artists such as Gustave Dore, Georges Clairin, writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, and various actors. Bernhardt had an affair with the future British King Edward VII, when he was still the Prince of Wales. She also had some high profile lesbian relationships including with Ida Rubenstein, Anna de Noailles and she lived openly with the painter Louise Abbema and Eleonora Duse.
A muse to her friends and lovers, Bernhardt was the subject of many paintings by Louise Abbema. She was friends with Victor Hugo and Marcel Proust.
As an interesting side note, Bernhardt is also responsible for giving the world both the word and the hat style known as a Fedora. The word and the hat it describes come from an 1882 play called Fédora, in which Bernhardt played the title role of a hat wearing Princess Fédora Romanoff. The idea of a woman wearing a man’s style hat caused a bit of a sensation at the time and led to women rebelliously wearing fedoras in public as a sign of female emancipation.