This fantastical inkwell is a self-portrait of the great actor and artist Sarah Bernhardt in the form of a chimera or sphinx. She is thought to have sculpted it in 1879 when rehearsing for the role of Blanche de Chelles, the mysterious and demonic heroine of Octave Feuillet's play ‘Le Sphinx', and it was exhibited that same year in London, at 33 Piccadilly, and the following year in at the Union League Club, New York. A bronze edition was made by Thiébaut frères and other examples exist, but the present lot and another in the Royal Collection, are the only versions known without the Thiébaut foundry mark suggesting that this is a supremely rare early épreuve d’artiste - its casting in bronze overseen by Bernhardt herself. Furthermore the present lot is provenanced as a gift from Sarah Bernhardt to Sir Algernon Borthwick, later Lord Glenesk, and comes by direct descent to be offered here for the first time in its history.
Autoportrait en chimère is believed to be a personal self-reflection of the artist. Here, the strong symbolist influence of this sculpture is a departure from Bernhardt's more conventional or Romantic subjects. It illustrates not only her certain knowledge of the work of such artists as Auguste Moreau and Gustave Doré, but also more directly her own life. The inkwell appears to have been conceived on one level as a celebration of her role in Feuillet's play, and on a deeper level as an evocation of what Bernhardt perceived herself to be. As the critic Jules Lemaître described her ‘... [she is] a distant and chimerical creature, both hieratic and serpentine, with a lure both mystical and sensual’.
In the summer of 1879 Bernhardt toured to London giving a triumphant performance of Racine’s dramatic tragedy Phèdre and began her rise as an international star. A private exhibition of Bernhardt’s painting and sculpture was organised at 33 Piccadilly, where the inkwell Autoportrait en chimère was shown. The exhibition was attended by Sir Frederic Leighton, Sir John Everett Millais, William Gladstone and the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra). In London, Bernhardt also gave private recitals, including at home for the newspaper proprietor Sir Algernon Borthwick (later Lord Glenesk) who had likely already met Bernhardt when he worked in Paris as the French correspondent for his father’s paper The Morning Post. The following year a French periodical records that ‘Mlle Sarah Bernhardt, upon her return from Brussels, held a dinner last night at avenue de Villiers along with her friends and Sir Algernon Borthwick… Sarah’s small hôtel was brilliantly lit, as was the large studio in which a small and intimate soirée was held.’ (Gil Blas, 13 August 1880, p. 1).
Bernhardt presented her self-portrait inkwells to friends and patrons and this example was perhaps a gift of thanks for Sir Algernon Borthwick’s support. The pre-eminence of the present lot as an early, or first, bronze cast is corroborated by the absence of the Thiébaut Frères foundry inscription, as the only other known example without the foundry inscription is in the Royal Collection (RCIN 7275), and was almost certainly a gift to the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) who also greatly admired Bernhardt and did much to facilitate her introduction to London society. It is likely therefore that Sir Algernon and the Prince of Wales were given their respective inkwells in 1879/80 placing them as early épreuves d’artiste and predating the Thiébaut Frères foundry edition.
The tinted plaster is at the Musée Carnavalet, Paris (S 3375). Subsequent to the present lot and the Royal Collection version there was a bronze edition of the same size cast by the Thiébaut Frères foundry, as well as a smaller reduction of the model. Known examples of the bronze edition have the foundry inscription 'Thiébaut frères – Fondeurs – Paris' and are inscribed ‘1880’:
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (inv. 1973.551a-d), acquired in 1973.
- Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA (99.24a-c).
- Christie's, London, 2 May 1996, lot 145.
- Christie's, London, 23 September 2010, lot 318.