Sarah Bernhardt

A few years ago I decided that I didn’t know enough about color. I knew the color wheel. I knew the different levels of complimentary, colors and I even had a good idea of color frequencies. Basically I knew the graphic design elements of color, the Pantone system for printers. I hadn’t developed a painterly palette.

So I thought, what better way to learn than to colorize some old black and white photos, not in a Ted Turner movie fashion, but in a more artistic impression. I started with my own archive of black and whites. The trouble was that the people were generally way too small, and by the time I enlarged the image I was getting too low of a resolution.

So I began to look to the internet for high quality black and whites. I found the great collections of early movie stars. For about a year, on and off, I played around with some classic “stars”. I learned a lot, most of them were familiar, some were very familiar. A few I only knew by name. One of them was Sarah Bernhardt. I really did know the name, but that was it. The image that I choose to colorize was this one…

The odd thing was that it reminded me of one of my favorite portraits that had just worked on as a tribute to Edouard Manet of Berthe Morisot…

Magnet’s Berthe Morisot

Okay, this was odd. The Manet was painted in 1872. Certainly Sarah wasn’t from 1872? Or was she? Then I realized I didn’t know much about her, apart from her name. Was she French, and not English? Was she from Paris, and not NYC?

I must admit I was not particularly interested in the image, or the person behind the image. I finished it and went on to colorize Audrey Hepburn, and I promptly forgot about my questions on Sarah.

A few years later, a good friend sent me a wonderful email, as is her habit. And she included her signature “last sentence” in the paragraph, about something entirely different, knowing that it would interest me. June wrote, “After nearly fifty years, I’m finally considering to finish that play I wrote on Sarah Bernhardt.” WTF?

I hadn’t the slightest idea that she had started to write a play on Sarah. Naturally I knew Sarah, I had made an image of her with the Hollywood crowd. I looked at my source. Sarah Bernhardt had a star on the Boulevard of Stars, she made movies, she has the earliest birthdate of anyone on the Boulevard. She was born in 1844 and died in 1923. What the hell? 1844? And she was French! And mostly a stage actress, although she made some of the first movies. And she sang, she sang remarkably, she was the “Golden Voice”.

Okay, time to learn some more about Sarah.

The best thing occurred, I got a copy of the original script written years ago, by June. She had made this after years of researching Sarah. She was going to update it with current information, but it was a wonderful summary of what was generally known.

At the end of Act I I knew hundreds of things, at the end of Act II, I was completely sold out on Sarah, and yearned to know more. June had once again deployed the “famous last line in the paragraph.”

So, for the last few months I have made several dozen images from sketches of artists, faded photos on cabinet cards, and a few great photographs from excellent photographers. It is safe to say that there are at least a dozen different looks of Sarah, as she had her image captured at least once a month for about sixty years. Yes, she did age, but it wasn’t just age, and it wasn’t the costumes or make-up. She just projected different images!

I recall reading about her performance in “Joan of Arc”, when she was 65. She had a line in the script where she had to state to her interrogators her characters age. The line she said was, “I’m nineteen!” At 65 she was was playing a 19 year old! Successfully!

It was not lost on the audience, because they consistently broke out in applause after she said her line.

I am by no means an expert on her life. There is so much that can’t be known. In some cases there is a void… in most cases there are multiple conflicting stories. My favorite is that she is actually French Canadian, and she moved to Iowa as a child, then to Paris, to enter the theatre. What was the source of this? As near as I can tell it is based on three things. 1) America is the greatest, so she must be American. 2) She had nine different tours of America in her lifetime. 3) And someone wrote once that she spoke French with an American accent. Hahaha!

It’s safe to say that she was French, and always performed in French wherever she traveled.

The following images are some of the favorites that I’ve done…

From a sketch by Mucha

I am so excited for the play to be finished.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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