Skip to main content

Sarah Bernhardt
, 1891

by Falk Studios

albumen silver photograph on cabinet card (support: 16.5 cm x 11.0 cm, image: 14.2 cm x 10.2 cm)

More images of this artwork

Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) was acclaimed as the greatest actor of her generation. Born in Paris to a Dutch-born Jewish courtesan, she commenced study at the Paris Conservatoire at age sixteen and at eighteen was accepted into the Comédie Française. She joined the Théâtre de l’Odéon in 1866, thereafter establishing her reputation with a succession of roles in plays by Moliere, Hugo, Racine and Dumas, among others. Returning to the Comédie Française, she earned great acclaim for her performances, but her relentless self-promotion and unconventional lifestyle gradually made her unpalatable to administrators, resulting in her forming her own company in 1879. ‘The Divine Sarah’ was a prototype of the global superstar, ultimately performing in at least 70 roles in some 125 productions and appearing in countless countries. She first performed in Melbourne in May 1891, for weeks before which her visit to Australia had been the general and absorbing topic of conversation. Returning to France in 1893, she managed the Théâtre de la Renaissance and later leased the Théâtre des Nations, which she renamed the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt and managed until her death. Her late career included forays into film, sound recording and writing, including poetry, plays, fictionalised autobiography and the acting textbook L’art du Théâtre (1923). She was created a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 1914.

H. Walter Barnett was a leading portrait photographer of the late Victorian, Edwardian and interwar periods. Born in St Kilda, Barnett worked for Stewart and Co. and briefly operated his own studio in Hobart before setting up Falk Studios in Sydney in 1885. Falk Studios became the leader in portraits of contemporary Australian stars of the stage and captured many celebrity visitors including Bernhardt, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain. In the 1890s Barnett established a highly successful photographic studio in London, working for celebrities, artists, royalty and high society personalities. Barnett's close social relationship with fellow expatriate artists Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Charles Conder and, significantly, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, provided the impetus for much of his photography and were crucial to the success of his studio. His works were widely admired for their beauty and artistic strength.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased 2017
Accession number: 2017.32