Sarah Bernhardt in 9 Fascinating Facts and Myths

Sarah Bernhardt was a fascinating and mysterious actress. Here’s all you need to know about her.

May 18, 2023By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

sarah bernhardt fascinating facts and myths


The mysterious personality of the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt has always intrigued people. Her life story keeps attracting new fans even a hundred years after her death. Bernhardt’s path was full of unbelievable stories and rumors. Here are 9 fascinating stories about The Divine Sarah that you should definitely know. Welcome to the quirky and bizarre world of the one and only Sarah Bernhard.


Sarah Bernhardt’s Career Was Not Supposed To Happen

nadar bernhardt photo 1864
Photograph of Sarah Bernhardt by Felix Nadar, c. 1864, via Wikimedia Commons


Sarah Bernhardt’s mother was a Dutch-Jewish courtesan, who gave birth to her daughter out of wedlock. Although she had enough wealth, power, and influence thanks to her elite patrons, her occupation left an undesirable mark on her daughter’s reputation right from the start. Bernhardt’s childhood dream was to become a nun, although she seemed too dedicated to the cause. In her early teens, she was nearly expelled from a convent school for giving a proper Christian burial to her pet lizard.


Soon after the lizard incident, Sarah’s mother decided to secure a career for her daughter. One of her patrons, Duke de Morny, the half-brother of Napoleon III, arranged for Sarah to audition for a play. Her artistic debut happened in 1862 on the stage of Parisian Comedie-Francaise. Bernhardt failed miserably, crying after the performance and asking her teacher for forgiveness. However, Bernhardt did not agree to give up so easily. She spent the next six years learning and training, returning to the stage in 1868 with immediate mind-blowing success.


She Was the First Modern Celebrity

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Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt by Georges Clairin, , 1876, via Petit Palais Paris


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Bernhardt was a pioneer in many ways, in fact, she was the model for the present-day celebrity culture. Sarah was the first actress who became much more than just an actress. She took great advantage of the great technological progress of her time. Unlike many other artists, Sarah did not turn away from photography, sound recording, and the telegraph. Photographs of The Divine Sarah appeared on postcards and magazines, on posters, and in newspapers, and her voice became familiar to audiences outside Europe.


Sarah was everywhere. You could love her or hate her, but you sure knew her name, her latest role, and the scandals surrounding her image, even if that information came to you involuntarily. She kept track of all the press coverage and addressed all cases of media drama, starting from her supposedly inappropriate behavior during a spiritual seance to the fact that her son was born out of wedlock, by personally writing letters to the public and demanding newspaper editors to publish them.


Her Main Artistic Project Was Her Own Identity

sarah bernhardt theodora photo 1900
Sarah Bernhardt in the production of Theodora, 1900, via National Museum of Women in Art, Washington


Sarah Bernhardt carefully constructed her public persona. Every public appearance, every movement, every word she said, and every dress she wore were meant to create an image of the mysterious and decadent beauty living a dramatic and eccentric life. She kept a menagerie of exotic animals that included a cheetah and an alligator, although some said that she was not kind to them since she allegedly shot her boa constrictor for swallowing a sofa cushion. According to rumors, Bernhardt also kept a human skull as a letterbox and a real skeleton in her dressing room.


In a way, these eccentric stories served as a protective screen for the real Sarah Bernhardt. The press was too busy writing about skulls and cheetahs to dig deeper into her personal affairs. Bernhardt was the first person to turn her public existence into a successful act while looking absolutely authentic and sincere.


She Made Alphonse Mucha a Star

mucha gismonda poster 1894
Poster for Gismonda starring Sarah Bernhardt by Alphonse Mucha, 1894, via Wikimedia Commons


Many of us know Sarah Bernhardt from the beautiful art-nouveau posters designed by Alphonse Mucha. But Bernhardt actually propelled Mucha’s career! They met almost by accident in late December 1894 when Sarah came to a printing workshop to order a poster for her production of Victorien Sardou’s Gismonda. Everyone working in the workshop was already on holiday, except for an unknown Czech illustrator called Alphonse Mucha. Bernhard was impressed enough to offer Mucha a deal. For the next five years, he would paint posters and design costumes for her. In return, Bernhardt spread Mucha’s fame over the ocean with his works promoting the actress’ American tour.


She Was a Talented Sculptor

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Ophelia by Sarah Bernhardt, 1880, via Art History Project


Although best known as the most outstanding actress of her time, Bernhardt was also a well-trained and talented sculptor. Her sculptures were sometimes interpreted as yet another eccentric hobby of an unusual woman, but nevertheless, her works received critical acclaim. Many of her works were self-portraits. For example, a bronze inkwell shows Bernhardt with dragon-like wings and a tail, holding a human skull. The piece illustrates the mysterious and otherworldly charm of the femme fatale.


This way, Bernhardt’s work came full circle. Her artistic identity was shaping her sculptural practice, and her sculptural practice helped shape her public identity. Another famous work of hers is the astonishing marble relief showing Ophelia created in 1880. In this sensual depiction of a young woman drowning, we can see traces of Bernhardt’s facial features. It’s interesting to know that it would take another six years for the actress to actually play Ophelia on stage.


She Allegedly Slept in a Coffin

sarah bernhardt coffin photo 1907
Photograph of Sarah Bernhardt in a coffin, 1907, via Wikimedia Commons


One of the best-known photos of Bernhardt shows the actress lying in a coffin with her arms folded on her chest. According to a rumor, she ordered a coffin for her exact measures and slept in it like in a regular bed. When asked for an explanation, Bernhardt presented different versions of the story. She told some people that she was mentally preparing to play a character dying on stage, while others heard how this was her way of dealing with her fear of premature burial. Although Bernhardt did indeed order a coffin and spend considerable sums of money decorating it with the most expensive flowers, silk, and lace, it is most likely that the story was a publicity stunt.


She Actually Made a Career by Dying 

bernhardt lecouvreur photo 1913
Sarah Bernhardt in a silent film Adrienne Lecouvreur, 1913, via ThoughCo


Sarah Bernhardt’s public persona was in many ways built on the imagery of death. From her scandalous thin figure associated with diseases to the previously discussed coffin anecdote. But her play with the impermanence of life did not end there, she was actually known for being good at dying. Every night Sarah Bernhardt was playing tragic heroines on stage, many of which were murdered by someone close to them, while others took their own lives out of deep sadness and broken hearts.


She died dramatically almost every night on stage and she never did it the same way. That is why the public kept coming back to see her performances again and again. While playing Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Bernhardt was the first actress ever to insist on appearing on stage post-mortem. Normally, after the tragic death of Ophelia, a closed coffin was brought out on stage. It was Bernhardt’s innovative idea to be carried in an open coffin to visually demonstrate the young beauty that left the world too soon.


She Appeared on Stage as a Man

bernhardt hamlet photo 1899
Postcard of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, 1899, via The British Library, London


In her later career, Sarah Bernhardt shocked the public by turning to male roles. She became the first woman ever who played Hamlet in 1899. Some historians like Pamela Cobrin interpret Bernhardt’s choice of these roles not as an artistic c only, but as a radical anti-agist feminist response to the professional limits imposed on aging actresses. Bernhardt herself explained this by saying:


A woman is better suited to play parts like L’Aiglon and Hamlet than a man. These roles portray youths of twenty or twenty-one with the minds of men of forty. A boy of twenty cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet nor the poetic enthusiasm of L’Aiglon… An older man… does not look the boy, nor has he the ready adaptability of the woman who can combine the light carriage of youth with the mature thought of the man. The woman more readily looks the part, yet has the maturity of mind to grasp it.


Sarah Bernhardt’s Story is Far From Over

mucha camellias poster 1896
Poster for The Lady of the Camellias starring Sarah Bernhardt by Alphonse Mucha, 1896, via Wikimedia Commons


In 1915, Sarah Bernhardt had her left leg amputated. The reason for the surgery was the constant pain she was in after badly injuring her knee on stage. She even threatened her doctor that she would shoot herself in the leg so he would be forced to amputate it anyway. Did that stop her from behaving like the most outrageously flamboyant person ever? The answer is: absolutely not. Seventy-one-year-old Bernhardt was now being carried around in a palanquin by four young men.


Bernhardt was buried at the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris eight years after her surgery, but her leg was left in the storeroom of Bordeaux University’s medical school. In 2009, the university staff apparently rediscovered the leg, but with a missing knee. Thus, the magnificent Sarah Bernhardt keeps creating mysteries even a century after her death.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.