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Paris Life & Culture: Sarah Bernhardt Exhibition at the Petit Palais Art Gallery

One of the things I love about living in Paris is the sheer number of exhibitions, art galleries and museums. My aim is to discover every one and visit as many as possible. And, yes, I'll report back!

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I'm definately in search of 'hidden Paris', the Paris you have to be a local, talk to people and walk everywhere to find, however I also want to get to know the big museums and exhibitions which are popular because they are so exceptional and in such jaw-droppingly beautiful buildings.

The first place I decided to visit, as it doesn't have long to run, was the Sarah Burnhardt exhibition at the Petit Palais. The Palais is not really petit, its absolutely magnificent. Next to the river, just off the Champs Elysee, on Avenue Winston Churchill it is in a prime cental position.

I'm used to impressive buildings from living in London, but stepping through the magnificent doors I drew a breath! The painted ceilings and carved stone was just fabulous.

I've always been a fan of Sarah Burnhardt, "The Divine Sarah" and widely considered the best actress of her era, she's quite my heroine so I was very excited to learn more about her.

Early life

The daughter of a Dutch courtesan, born in Paris in 1844, she was brought up in a Convent and considered becoming a nun, maybe not a good career choice for such a willful child. However her mother arranged for her to attend the Conservatoire in Paris, one of her mother's lovers was Napoléon III's half brother, the Duke de Mornay which certainly helped open doors! Sarah, with her natural talent, found their methods very outdated, so again with the Dule's influence she joined the famous 'Comedy Français'.

Always spirited, and here a little too spirited, her tenure at the Comedie was short lived and she moved to the Odeon Theatre (just round the corner from me and still open) where she had her first major success in a new play, 'Père' by none other than Victor Hugo. She quickly became renowned for her charisma and commanding stage presence.

"La Voix d'Or" (The voice of gold) - Victor Hugo

Exhibition highlights

I loved the number of paintings of Sarah that the museum had curated, she was such a beauty, but a beauty with real character shining through.

Once established she took many iconic rolls, I was thrilled to see her Cleopatra costume, she was tiny and very slender, so the costume looked almost like a child's. However her projection of self was certainly not tiny! She was adored by the public and press, but also a consumate self publicist.

She played so many classic female leads but also many of the great male roles, notably Shakespeare's Hamlet

Heart break

Her love life was as unconventional as her stage life, she lost the love of her life to drug addiction and one of the most moving exhibits was the sculpture she made of him after his death (I didn't know she was an accomplished sculptor)

Quand Même

Her personal motto, meaning "nevertheless", she didn't even let her leg being amputated in 1915 as a result of tuberculosis stop her acting, she appears to have been an unstoppable force.

In the exhibition, there were some pieces of her dinner service, made for her by Creil et Montereau, one of my favourite ironstone manufacturers to collect. It was the small touches, the everyday details that I loved seeing as much as the grand portraits.

I also loved the opportunity to stand in front of her mirror and see my refelction where she had seen her's, that's my favourite memory from the afternoon.

I'll leave you with a few more of my favourite images, (click to see more) but if you want to see the exhibition yourself, and I really would recommend it, it's only on until the 27th August 2023.

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