Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sarah Bernhardt Continues to Put on a Show at the Shelburne Museum

by Carolyn Bauer, Assistant Curator


Shelburne Museum's current exhibition Natural Beauties: Jewelry from Art Nouveau to Now features show-stopping fine jewelry. Visitors to the exhibition stop in their tracks as they are taken aback by the abundance and artistry of beautiful gems and jewels in the gallery. Perhaps no one piece of jewelry is the most to blame for causing these pauses than the Art Nouveau  Enamel, Diamond and Amethyst Pendent.

Rene Lalique, Enamel, Diamond and
Amethyst Pendent, ca. 1895. Enamel,
diamond, amethyst, and 18k yellow gold,
4 1/2 x 2 1/2 in. Private Collection,
courtesy of Simon Teakle Fine Jewelry.

Created by the famous French jeweler René Lalique (1860-1945), the Enamel, Diamond and Amethyst Pendent is an enamel necklace encrusted with an array of precious stones, such as: rose-cut diamonds, cabochon citrines, garnets, periodots, tourmalines, and amethysts.  Framed by gems in a gold setting, the open-work enamel scene depicts the profile of a woman walking in the woods accompanied by a dog. The figure of the famed French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). In this work of art she is rendered as Melissande, a Countess of Tripolia, a character she played in the 1895 stage production La Princesse Lointaine, a play written by the acclaimed playwright Edmond Rostand, a fond friend of Bernhardt. 

Bernhardt, a living legend and celebrated beauty during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was a muse for the world's leading artists, designers, and fashion labels. Today, the actress is best remembered as the face of the aesthetic Art Nouveau movement through artist Alphonse Mucha’s popular advertising posters.

 Among Bernhardt’s many talents, she also had an eye for fine jewelry.  In addition to her own interests in collecting jewelry she also exerted a great deal of influence over its creation during a time when jewelry was rising towards the status of fine art.  As she was building her jewelry collection, Lalique’s dramatic designs caught her attention. Lalique, who was also beginning to make a name for himself in the arts through his technically innovative and artistic jewelry, went from being an admirer of Bernhardt to being her friend.

It was their friendship that assisted in Lalique’s invitations to create elaborate costume jewelry for Bernhardt to wear on the stage.  In 1894 he was commissioned to design her crown for the play Theodora, and it has been suggested that Lalique may have also designed the jewelry and crown worn by Bernhardt for La Princesse Lointaine.

Rene Lalique, Jeweled copy of La Princesse
ca. 1895. Leather, Gold, Diamond,
Citrine, Garnet, Peridot, Tourmaline, Cabochon,
Amethyst. Private Collection, courtesy of
Simon Teakle Fine Jewelry.

In celebration of Bernhardt’s starring role as Melissandre, Princess of Tripoli, Edmond Rostand presented her with a copy of the script. Bound in light beige leather with inlaid precious stones, the text is a testimony to their friendship and admiration for each other. On the script's cover is a lily, a reference to the crown she wore in the performance, which is composed of diamonds and citrines. Rostand also included Bernhardt's initials, her motto "Quand Meme" ("in spite of"), and a handwritten dedication to her in the book. 

Exhibited side by side, the stunning Lalique necklace and play script not only enchants visitors with their exceptional beauty, but also give a glimpse into the private lives of these exceptional artists and memorialize their lasting influence in the arts.  

Both of these must-see works of art will continue to be on display at the Shelburne Museum in Natural Beauties: From Art Nouveau to Now until March 8, 2015.  


Carolyn Bauer is the Assistant Curator at Shelburne Museum. Her interests include, but are not limited to:  mid-twentieth century modern art and culture,  American decorative arts, feminist art historical writings, and contemporary art. She is obsessed with the lives and artworks of Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell;  and enjoys cheering on her home state’s Green Bay Packers and exploring Vermont with her dog, Greta.

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