The Belle Époque was an explosion of optimism and cultural innovation and artistic endeavours. The Belle Époque, lasting from the 1870s up to WWI, was at its height in Paris during the 1890s and 1900s. It was a great time for art and theatre, and they converged to great success at the Theatre de la Renaissance with a collaboration between Sarah Bernhardt and Alphonse Mucha.
During the turn of the nineteenth into twentieth century, Art Nouveau was in full swing, and Alphonse Mucha was a prominent artist of the movement. Czech-born Mucha moved to Paris in 1887, where he found success designing his iconic Art Nouveau posters and decorative arts.
While Mucha was not exclusively a commercial artist, he achieved great success with his more commercially driven pieces. He made iconic posters for such products as champagne, chocolate, cigars, and more. In fact, it was a commission for a poster advertising a theatre engagement that led to Mucha’s big break.
In late 1894, Mucha created a poster for the Theatre de la Renaissance, the first of many. It went up all around Paris—a six foot tall poster featuring famed actress, Sarah Bernhardt. It promoted the theatre’s production of Gismonda that was to premier in 1895. Bernhardt, thrilled with the result, signed a contract with Mucha that led to the creation of seven posters featuring the actress for the Theatre de la Renaissance over a five year period, including La Dame Aux Camélias, as seen above.
Sarah Bernhardt was an immensely popular stage actress of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was born in Paris in October 1844, and trained at the famed Paris Conservatoire. In the 1880s, she rose to international acclaim during a world tour with her travelling theatre company. Throughout her lifetime, she took on an impressive 70 roles in 125 productions all over the world. Bernhardt even played several male characters over the course of her career, and was one of the first women to play the titular role in Hamlet. The image below is a photograph of Bernhardt playing the role of the Duke of Reichstadt in the play “L’Aiglon,” by Edmond Rostand.
From 1893 – 1899, she was the manager at the Theatre de la Renaissance, where she contracted Mucha to create posters for their stage productions. One of these productions was La Dame Aux Camélias, a play by Alexandre Dumas. Dumas, son of the writer Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, first released La Dame Aux Camélias as a novel before adapting it as a play. Bernhardt, world-renowned for her various roles in this play, had achieved great acclaim for her portrayals of Fedora and Marguerite Gautier in different productions of the play.
Mucha and Bernhardt had an immensely successful collaboration over the last five years of the 19th-century. La Divine Sarah, as Bernhardt became known, was perhaps the most influential figure in Mucha’s early career. This poster seen above is a much smaller lithograph version of the six foot tall poster that would have advertised the play all over Paris. It is a gorgeous example of the amazing partnership between Bernhardt and Mucha.
Kate Van Riper is an archivist and received her Masters of Library and Information Science from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. She is currently working on the Cooper Hewitt’s mass digitization project.
 Mucha Foundation. (n.d.). Sarah Bernhardt. Retrieved from http://www.muchafoundation.org/gallery/themes/theme/sarah-bernhardt/object/23/
 Sarah Bernhardt. (n.d.). In Encyclopaedia Britannica online. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/biography/Sarah-Bernhardt
 Shapira, Elana. (2009, March 1). Sarah Bernhardt. Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bernhardt-sarah
 Sarah Bernhardt. In Encyclopaedia Britannica online.
 Rostand’s New Play A Success: “L’Aiglon,” Produced by Bernhardt, Warmly Received in Paris. (1900, March16). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9400EFDD1339E733A25755C1A9659C946197D6CF
 Shapira, Elana. Sarah Bernhardt.