The Photographer’s Divine Muse

Photograph/Félix Nadar Image Source/Wikimedia Commons

Photograph/Félix Nadar
Image Source/Wikimedia Commons

This story was originally published in September 2014.

Born in 1820, Félix Tournachon or Nadar was a student of medicine, who dabbled in caricature, theatre, writing and ballooning, before he eventually turned to photography in 1851. In the second half of the 19th century, Nadar became the most sought after portraitist in France. In 1861, he acquired a new studio at Boulevard des Capucines that marked a new era of mass production in photography. Nadar’s new studio was grand, audacious and unlike any other in France. It employed more than 50 workers, and produced up to 10 portraits a day–a feat that was unheard of until then. In addition, it transformed itself into a common meeting ground for the Parisian elite, and a photograph by Nadar became a matter of social prestige.

Therefore, in order to reinvent her failing career and social standing, Sarah Bernhardt, an aspiring actress, visited the studio in 1862. Nadar photographed Sarah over a period of time and documented her phase as a struggling actress. In fact, this portrait of Sarah Bernhardt has been considered to be one of Nadar’s best works.

While he produced three versions of Sarah’s portrait, there exist no contemporary prints of the images. In all the three photographs, Nadar chose to present the actress in a simplistic and unadorned manner, which highlighted her natural beauty.

However, Nadar stopped photographing his long term muse shortly after she acclaimed the status of a legend. Sarah Bernhardt went on to become the most popular French actress of the 19th century, and was nicknamed ‘Divine’ Sarah by her admirers.

Tags: Félix Nadar, history, Nadar, Story Behind the Picture