Joseph-Alfred Ponsin (active c.1878-1900)

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'The Devine Sarah' (1844-1923)

Sarah Bernhardt in the Role of Zanetto in the play Le Passant (1869) by François Coppée

Made by the glass-painter Joseph Alfred Ponsin
Paris, c.1880

194 × 87 cm
An extraordinary document from the actress's residence in Paris, and in excellent condition

Musée Carnavalet, Paris


The window depicts the famous, legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt, whose life was surrounded in scandal. She stands on a free-floating arcanthus branch in the middle of bull’s-eye glazing, facing to the viewer’s left in profile, dressed in violet-silk hose, dark ankle-boots, short golden harems pants, and a golden waistcoat with blue velvet sleeves over a pleated lacy white blouse, with a little blue velvet cap decorated with a red feather on top of her reddish hair. A long taffeta cloak fixed at the shoulders falls in folds onto the foliage of the branch below, which acts as a console on which the figure stands. She plays a lute and appears to be singing with a slightly open mouth. A delicate branch of blossom sways upwards as if to embrace Sarah, who is dressed as a minstrel.

This life-like full-length portrait shows the actress in the trouser role of the minstrel Zanetto in the play Le Passant by the French poet, playwright and novelist François Coppée (1842–1908). This one-acter was Coppée’s first stage work, and it was premiered with great success on 14 January 1869 at the Odéon theatre in Paris. It is set in Florence in Renaissance times and deals with a young minstrel Zanetto, who enchants Silvia, a frustrated, loveless courtesan; she however is anxious not to spoil the young man’s innocence. The window shows Bernhardt in the same costume as the one she wore on stage; probably about to sing the ’Sérénade de Zanetto ou Sérénade du Passant’ (’Zanetto’s Serenade, or the ’Passer-by’s Serenade’) by the French opera composer Jules Massenet (1842–1912), a work that would have displayed her musical talent.

The window comes from the diva’s residence, which she had built in Renaissance style at the end of 1876 by the architect Jules Février, at the corner of Rue Fortuny and Avenue Villiers, in Paris’s 17th arrondissement. She lived there until 1885. The love affair and marriage to the Greek good-for-nothing actor Aristides Damala almost ruined Bernhardt, as well as Maurice, her spoiled son by the Belgian nobleman Charles-Joseph Lamoral de Ligne (1837–1914), so she had to sell the house quickly. Overall she led a daredevil life – often standing at the edge of the abyss, only then to fly upwards, higher and further than before. Her brilliance and will power, her ambition and talent brought her (motto: ’If I can’t become the greatest actress in the world, then I want to die’) extended tours in the United States of America and Europe and made her into a global start. She has been described as theatre’s first media star.
In 1887, Bernhardt bought another house, at 56 Boulevard Pereire, where she lived until her death. Both houses have been demolished, the first in 1970, the second even earlier, in 1965.

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Signature of the glass-painter Joseph-Alfred Ponsin, Paris
- The most recent biography is Robert Gottlieb’s Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, published in 2010 (New Haven/London)
- See Portraits de Sarah Bernhardt, exhibition catalogue (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, October 2000 – January 2001), Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 2000.
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Biografie Joseph-Alfred Ponsin

Sarah Bernhardt, stained-glass window, Comédie Francaise