Born on this day in 1853, Louise Abbéma was a painter, sculptor, designer, and one of the most famous “New Women” of the Belle Époque era. She is most well-known for her relationship with her lover and muse Sarah Bernhardt, who was one of the most well-known French stage actresses of her day.
photographed in 1914 (x).
Louise Abbéma was born on October 30, 1853 in Étampes, Essonne. The Abbémas were an incredibly wealthy liberal family who were very well-connected to the Parisian art world; when Louise began to show interest in art at a young age, her parents had her train under greats such as Charles Joshua Chaplin, Jean-Jacques Henner and Carolus-Duran.After leaving home to study in Paris, the heart of the French art scene, at just the young age of 15, Louise became an active member in the premier salons of the day.
She first received widespread recognition for her paintings when she displayed her very first portrait of Sarah Bernhardt. Her trademarks were oil portraits and waters colors, as exemplified in the works of one of her biggest influence, Édouard Manet. Another big influence? The fellow lesbian artist Rosa Bonheur! Louise became known for her portraits, murals, as well as her contributions to Gazette des Beaux-Arts and L’Art. Some of her most prestigious awards throughout her career was the 1887 Palme Academiques and being dubbed the Chevalier of the Order of the Légion d’honneur in 1906
A portrait of Sarah Bernhardt painted by Louise
and dated 1875 (x).
Although many historians have tried to paint Louise and Sarah Bernhardt as simply incredibly close friends, it is undeniable in our contemporary understanding that the two were lovers. Having made her stage debut in 1862 in the play Iphigénie, Sarah was already a household name by the time she met Louise in 1871. Both women were known as Bohemian eccentrics in polite society, especially Louise who wore men’s suits and smoked a cigar wherever she went, so it was a surprise to no one when the two eventually became inseparable. It was Louise’s first portrait of the “Divine Sarah,” as she was called by her adoring fans, that propelled her into superstar status after it became a hit at the Paris Salon of 1876, and throughout their 50-year-long partnership, Louise created multiple portraits and busts of Sarah.
As a successful, independent painter and a butch lesbian who frequently showed gender non-conforming women in her work, Louise broke the mold of what society expected of its women. She and Sarah stayed together until Sarah’s death in 1923 and ever since Louise’s own death on July 10, 1927, she has been remembered as one of the most groundbreaking of the early 20th century’s “New Women.”