Imagine a misty afternoon in Paris, circa 1883. Actress Sarah Bernhardt and her friend Christine Nillson are draped on the settee, whiling away the hours until it’s time to go to the theater. Sarah, bored, takes a book from the stack piled on the ottoman beside her. Restlessly, she leafs through the pages until a phrase catches her eye. Then, in that stellar voice which thrills audiences of the stage, she begins to read aloud.
This painting by American artist Julius LeBlanc Stewart, is a stunning depiction of two friends caught in an ordinary moment. I adore the sensuousness of this work. Look at all the textures – the pleats on Sarah’s dress, the deep folds in the draperies, the whispery fur on the rug. The women’s totally relaxed and lazy pose perfectly demonstrates the ennui of the day, and their sense of ease and comfort with one another.
Stewart, a contemporary of John Singer Sargent, was trained in Paris, and lived most of his life there. He made a living painting portraits of his inner circle and other members of Parisian high society. A glimpse at his catalog reveals a life of socializing and parties among the most “beautiful people” of his time.