The show, called "Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama," opened Dec. 2, 2005. On display are 250 rarely seen objects in all media, including paintings, sculpture (she sculpted in her spare time), photography, costumes, jewelry, stage designs, theatre posters, her furniture and personal effects, as well as a recording of her voice and some of the rare films in which she starred.
Highlights include: some of the famous photographs of Bernhardt taken by the French photographer Félix Nadar; the celebrated Art Nouveau posters by Alphonse Mucha and Jules Cheret advertising her plays; an infamous publicity photograph (which later became a popular postcard) of Bernhardt posing in her coffin (c. 1880); a letter Bernhardt wrote to Emile Zola in support of his defense of Alfred Dreyfus; paintings of the actress by prominent contemporaries; costumes including a gold-embroidered cape and a jewel encrusted crown for Théodora as well as jeweled bracelets for Cleopatra; examples of sculpture by Bernhardt; a rare audio recording (c. 1900) of the actress performing an Edmond Rostand play, L'Aiglon.
Bernhardt achieved worldwide fame in a time before radio, film, television, or automobile and air travel. She was born in 1844, the daughter and niece of Jewish courtesans, who were grooming her for the same profession. She made her debut at the Comédie Française in 1862, only to stormily leave the esteemed theatre twice in the next 20 years. A savvy businesswoman, she went on to supervise her own productions and run her own theatres. Bernhardt created many roles in the plays of Sardou and Rostand. Among the most famous were Phedre, Hernani, The Lady of the Camellias, Fedora, Theodora, Tosca, L'Aiglon and Hamlet, in which she famously played the leading role.
Bernhardt was also adept at manipulating publicity in a way that stars of today would admire. She attracted attention through her dabblings in painting and sculpture; her many world tours; numerous public affairs with famous men of the day; her collecting of an exotic menagerie; and her generally libertine style of living.
She garnered further press through her high-profile rivalry with the other great actress of the time, Eleonora Duse. In 1895, both actresses simultaneously appeared in competing London productions of Hermann Sudermann's Heimat, resulting in a famous review in which George Bernard Shaw compared the two (he preferred Duse). Bernhardt's acting style would seem outrageous to viewers today. Firmly rooted in the cult of personality that surrounded her, she struck beautiful poses and hit her dramatic "points" like clockwork. Nonetheless, she influences numerous artists who follow her in the profession.
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