Sarah Bernhardt by Nadar

Sarah Bernhardt by Nadar

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Title: Sarah Bernhardt.

Author : NADAR (Gaspard Félix TOURNACHON, known as) (1820 - 1910)

Creation date : 1864

Date shown: 1864

Dimensions: Height 30 - Width 24

Technique and other indications: modern print from a collodion glass negative

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Picture reference: 88EE507 / PHO 1983-165 -131

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

Invented by Nicéphore Niepce in the early 1820s, perfected by the inventions of Daguerre and Talbot, photography is one of the technological innovations of the XIXe century which probably influenced the development of art the most, especially in painting. The question quickly arose as to whether photography was reduced to a technique of reproduction or whether it could be considered as a means of plastic expression in its own right.

This problem is all the more delicate given that the photography intervened at a time when the need to consider the outside world with a new and objective eye was imposed, but moreover, as Baudelaire ironically reports in his Salon of 1859, the artistic credo of the time was that "art is and can only be the exact reproduction of nature". Under these conditions, photography should have appeared as the first of the arts, while general opinion remained reserved as to this possibility, which the same Baudelaire sums up in these terms: “An industrial medium cannot claim art, whose vocation is to express the beautiful. "

Image Analysis

Sarah Bernhardt was still only a young actress when Nadar made a series of portraits of her in 1864. Installed at that time on Boulevard des Capucines, the photographer had already passed to the stage of industrial production, and portraits of this quality were becoming rarer.

Her shot returns us the image of a magnificent young woman with a melancholy gaze. Leaning on a column, her shoulders bare, she is draped in a loose white burnous that recalls the taste of the time for the East. His face is gently modeled by side lighting, characteristic of Nadar's portraits. No superfluous detail distracts the viewer's attention from this model, whose radiant beauty hints at great destiny. Indeed, unlike what was then practiced in other workshops, the decor here comes down to almost nothing, and for any jewelry Sarah Bernhardt wears a cameo in her ear.

The simplicity of this portrait contrasts with those painted later by Paul Nadar, Felix's son, where the actress, at the height of her career, sparkled in the splendor of her stage costumes. But undoubtedly, the portraits made by the two photographers helped forge the aura of Sarah Bernhardt, the first actress probably to have been able to free herself from the relative contempt in which her profession was still held and to conquer a star status before the letter. , announcing from afar the stars of the cinema era ...


In 1864, at the time of this portrait, many personalities from the world of literature and the arts, such as George Sand, Delacroix and Berlioz, Daumier and Gustave Doré, Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval, the sculptors Auguste Préault and Emmanuel Frémiet , etc., had already posed in front of Félix Nadar's cameras. Her studio quickly became one of the most popular in Paris due to the exceptional quality of her portraits, which very soberly expressed the model's personality without dwelling on the representation of her social status.

A pioneer in all respects, the photographer also distinguished himself from 1862 in the field of air navigation controlled by balloons heavier than air (an activity kindly mocked by Daumier in a lithograph entitled Nadar elevating photography to the height of art, 1862)…

The portraits of Nadar are thus among the first testimonies of the artistic possibilities of photography, in particular through the mastery of lighting. As early as 1850, photography was also present in an artistic section of the Universal Exhibition. But it is as a technique of reproduction of nature that its appearance was a real revolution, on the one hand because it notably allowed the greatest number of people to have a portrait, a privilege until then reserved for the fortunate. on the other hand and above all because, as Walter Benjamin wrote in 1930, one had to wonder "if this very invention did not transform the general character of art", by forcing it to embark on other paths than the exact reproduction of nature.

  • Nadar (Tournachon Gaspard-Félix, aka)
  • photography
  • portrait
  • Bernhardt (Sarah)
  • theater
  • Benjamin (Walter)
  • Berlioz (Hector)
  • Gautier (Théophile)
  • Doré (Gustave)
  • Delacroix (Eugene)
  • Daumier (Honoré)
  • actor
  • Nerval (Gérard de)
  • Sand (George)
  • stardom


COLLECTIVE, Nadar. The creative years 1854-1860, exhibition catalog, Paris, Orsay Museum, New York, Metropolitan Museum, 1994-1995.

To cite this article

Robert FOHR, "Sarah Bernhardt by Nadar"

Video: Sarah Bernhardt par Nadar colorisée


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