Same Difference


Here is an idle curiosity.

When Oscar Wilde had this photograph taken by Napoleon Sarony in 1882, not only was he standing against the same wall that Sarah Bernhardt had stood against—but he was standing in EXACTLY the same spot.

French Resistance

After she quit the Comédie Française in 1880, Bernhardt and her troupe departed Le Havre for America arriving in New York on October 27. She had her first Sarony session soon thereafter and, not surprisingly, as Oscar once said of Clara Morris, she could be très difficile.

“on her first visit [Sarony] made an appointment for her at 12 o’clock. It came and passed, one, two and three and still no Sarah; at half-past she came with a rush but with wet plates and a November day it was too late and the little man was annoyed and told her so. She answered, “Vous n’avez pas de cœur.” This aroused Sarony to his greatest energy, and poses were made and plates coated and developed with dispatch, and the results were splendid.” [1]

It was widely reported at the time, and has been much repeated since, that Bernhardt was paid $1500 by Sarony for the right to photograph her. This would have been an enormous amount of money in 1880, and while she probably made that much (and more) the truth is more likely that she took out the payment in photographs, and actually cleared more than $2500 peddling them around the country. [2]

Irish Sitter

In January 1882 it was Wilde’s turn to visit Sarony. Again contrary to popular belief, Wilde did not waive his fee and he too was paid a princely sum for the rights to his image. [3]

Oscar was a great admirer of Bernhardt, but I don’t think he would have made a point of standing in the same place—and was probably unaware. It may have been a quirk of Sarony’s or mere coincidence, but I wonder if he (or anyone else) ever realized that he did?

Background Check

We can verify the relative positions of Bernhardt and Wilde by examining the wallpaper patterns and wainscoting reliefs behind them.

By doing this one other point of interest emerges.

Bernhardt and Wilde were never photographed together, so it has not been possible before now to compare their relative stature.

However, the identical background (and rescaling) allows us to see how Oscar at 6’3″ would have appeared alongside Sarah, a foot shorter at her recorded height of 5’3″.

This difference would have been more marked if Sarah waswearing heels, and had Wilde not been leaning, as in this juxtaposition.

More on Sarony and the photographs.

The Sarony Photographs of Oscar Wilde (complete).

© John Cooper, 2018.

[1] The Photographic Times, Volume XXIX, 1897.
[2] The Topeka Daily Capital, January 23, 1882.
[3] The story of the Sarony payment to Wilde will be the subject of a future article.

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John Cooper

John Cooper is a independent scholar who has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde. He is a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America. For the last 20 years Cooper has specialised in Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour becoming a consultant on Wilde’s American experience to biographers and the wider media. Cooper lectures on Wilde and has conducted new and unique research into Oscar Wilde visits to New York culminating in a guided walking tour. Online he is a popular blogger and the creator of the noncommercial archive 'Oscar Wilde in America’ which incorporates his work on the Sarony photographs, and a detailed documentary verification of Wilde’s American lecture tour. In 2012 Cooper rediscovered Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

6 thoughts on “Same Difference”

  1. Sarony probably had a hot spot in his studio with cameras and lights positioned for optimum effect. I think it would be more remarkable if his subjects were in different positions. I’m sure, John, you will be able to unearth more examples with similar backgrounds.


  2. I was aware that the backgrounds in many, if not most, Sarony pictures, are backdrops. But there is one of Bernhardt (laying on a couch) showing a different section of the same wall ending at a column?

    Even if it is a prop, I have not seen that particular one in any other Sarony pictures (yet)—which perhaps makes it just as coincidental.


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