Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was an actress, famous for her roles in Shakespearean productions and beyond.
She is often described as the most famous actress that has ever existed, and her influence on Mucha is testament to this. In fact, with his paintings of Bernhardt, Mucha helped to consolidate and to celebrate her fame.
Mucha's first painting of Bernhardt was of her in the role of Gismonda.
This begun a tradition in his paintings of her: he would usually paint Bernhardt both in character and yet unmistakably herself. Her name or the name of her role, or sometimes both, appearing in prominent and elegant lettering either behind her head or to the side of her.
Mucha's depictions of Bernhardt are done in the Art Nouveau style and in fact they helped Bernhardt to become one of the key figures in the Art Nouveau movement. Art Nouveau paintings and other art works are characterised by the combination of flowing curves and intricate linear designs.
In Mucha's depiction of Sarah Bernhardt, this can be seen especially in the intricate lines of Bernhardt's hair, the flowing lines of the painting as a whole and the way in which the elegant, distinctive lettering is incorporated into the overall design.
When painting Bernhardt, Muchas's adoption of an Art Nouveau style marked a departure from the more romantic and impressionistic pieces that he created - most notably his series of paintings known as the 'Slav Cycle' and 'The Slav Epic'.
He worked on these 'Slavic' paintings throughout his life, sometimes alongside works in the Art Nouveau style. Some people find it hard to believe that both the Art Nouveau depictions of Bernhardt and others and the softly lit paintings in the Slav Cycle were painted by the same artist. But, they most definitely were.
Another similarity to note is that between Mucha's depiction of Bernhardt and his paintings that he did for commercial advertisements. Soap, alcohol and cigarettes were among the products that Mucha created advertising posters for and these were also done in the Art Nouveau style.
Whether he added a commercial touch to his depiction of Bernhardt or whether by depicting commercial products in an artistic way he lifted them out of the real of mere advertising is for each individual viewer to decide.