My favorite lady lives on the 2nd floor

Posted by on Dec 13, 2011

Georges Jules Victor Clairin's "The Dancer" gracing the 2nd floor mezzanine of the Pfister Hotel. Yep she's my favorite. Le sigh...

My mother has always had portraits of women around the house. Her taste for paintings and sculpture spans the 1870’s up to early art deco. Overall she’d probably list Monet as her favorite painter. I grew up with these ladies hanging around so they’ve probably influenced which variety of painted ladies I find attractive and prefer to have in my walled company. I’m sure Freud would have plenty to say…

The art collection encompassed in the Pfister is the world’s largest hotel art collection on permanent display. Given that the hotel was initially completed in 1893 most of the hotel’s artistic style dates from near this time period.

I asked the Pfister’s Chef Concierge Peter Mortensen if he could fill me in on a little about Georges Jules Victor Clairin’s “The Dancer,” and he had plenty to whet my curiosity. But first I was lambasted for not knowing much about Sarah Bernhardt. Allow me to explain…

Clairin was a French painter who began exhibiting at the Salon in 1866. For folks like myself who haven’t yet visited Parisian museums or galleries, The Salon was an annual showcase of France’s premier academic artists. From what I can conclude the Salon shows fell in prominence around the rise of Impressionism. Impressionist art of the time was not generally accepted into the Salon shows and may account for it’s gradual skid in importance. Impressionists such as Cezanne, Monet, Degas, and Renoir are household names but I had to look up the Salon. I guess history shows who won that debate.

Georges’ specialty in painting became the female form. He loved to paint lavishly costumed women. Dancers and costumed actresses became models, muses, and lovers.

Clairin's rendering of Sarah Bernhardt as Ophelia. To be clear this piece is not possessed by or displayed at the Pfister Hotel and is merely shown for purposes of comparison.

Sarah Bernhardt was an actress. Well, more correctly she was the actress. From her very start Sarah Bernhardt is a story not easily discerned. Sarah is believed to have been born in 1844 as Rosine Bernhardt to a mother named Julie and an unknown father. She began acting in the mid-1860’s but her birth papers were lost in a fire. She became Sarah by creating falsified birth documents. By the 1870’s her star grew to the point that she was known simply as “The Divine Sarah.” Bernhardt was the most sought-after actress of the time and traveled to the United States and Cuba to perform and teach aspiring lady actresses. Along the way she got married, had children, was known to sleep in a coffin (method acting preparation), got divorced, lost a leg to gangrene, had affairs, (in no specific, often overlapping, order) and performed exhaustively until her death in 1923.

Clairin ended up painting Ms. Bernhardt’s likeness several times. He often rendered her while costumed. Our concierge Peter explained that at one point Mr. Clairin and Ms. Bernhardt shared a house in the south of France. Although Georges Clairin is probably best known for painting Sarah Bernhardt, she is far from being the only woman to see the end of his paintbrush. Walk up to our second floor mezzanine to see the beauty my photograph of “The Dancer” cannot replicate.

As for Ms. Bernhardt, I’ll give you one guess where she stayed in Milwaukee.

Resident Pfister artist Shelby Keefe gives walking art tours Fridays and Saturdays at 4pm (Or by prior appointment, stop by her studio on the first floor to schedule directly with her). Tours are free and open to the public.


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