My Favourite Painting: Gyles Brandreth

Broadcaster and writer Gyles Brandreth makes his choice, a portrait of one of the most famous women of the 19th century.

Gyles Brandreth on his choice of Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt by Georges Clairin

‘I have this painting on my iPhone, as my computer screensaver, on a postcard on the fridge and in a silver frame on my bedside table. Whenever I go to Paris, I make a pilgrimage to the Petit Palais to see the original.

‘Georges Clairin, her sometime lover and long-term friend, painted this luminous portrait of Sarah Bernhardt when she was 32 and establishing herself as one of the most extraordinary actresses and personalities of her time.

‘I love the colours and the composition, but most of all I love the subject. Bernhardt — whose menagerie included a lion and a boa constrictor, as well as her dogs, who liked to sleep in a silk-lined coffin, played Hamlet and was still performing in old age with an amputated leg — was simply amazing. You can tell that just by looking at her, can’t you?’

Gyles Brandreth is an author and co-presenter with Susie Dent of ‘Something Rhymes With Purple’, a weekly podcast about words.

John McEwen comments on Sarah Bernhardt and Clairin’s painting

There are ‘bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses—and then there is Sarah Bernhardt,’ said Mark Twain. No one in showbusiness has combined publicity and business with such success in Europe and the US than Bernhardt — the most famous, richest actress of her time.

Unloved illegitimacy is used to explain her motto, ‘quand même’ (variously, ‘even so’, ‘no matter what’, ‘anyway’) and notorious fabrications. Alexandre Dumas fils said of her fabled slimness: ‘She’s such a liar, she may even be fat!’

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She began at the top in 1862, with the title role of Racine’s Iphigenia at 18, played male roles (Hamlet), the 19-year-old Joan of Arc at 46, was a pioneer film star and continued, despite a leg amputation, until her death in 1923, performing for soldiers during the First World War and completing nine sell-out tours of the US speaking solely in French.

No portrait conveyed her character better than this sensation of the 1876 Salon, provocatively posed in her newly bought Parisian house. ‘Vulgar sensuality’ was Zola’s rare dissenting opinion. Bernhardt slept with dozens of men, including Victor Hugo (70, she 27) and probably the Prince of Wales (Edward VII), who once shared her stage as a corpse.

It is likely that Clairin was yet another lover; he was her most persistent portraitist, taught her to paint and remained a lifelong friend. His Orientalist style suited her own. Proust immortalised her as ‘Berma’, Freud found her ‘enchanting’. Chekhov and Shaw were detractors, but, when she died, the play in the theatre named in her honour closed mid flow and the audience and cast walked silently to pay tribute outside her house.

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