Posted 2 years ago
This 44 x 18mm opal cameo brooch was on our watch list for at least a year until the day we worked out who the subject was. Then we couldn’t push the BUY button fast enough.
The incredible quality of the carving and the use of boulder opal is characteristic of the great opal cameo carver, Wilhelm Schmidt (1845-1938). Among the amazing workmanship is the feather which wraps over the top of the hat and then folds down onto the ironstone boulder above.
But who is she? I tried searching on famous females with feathered hats, then asked my wife what sort of hat it is. She said it’s a fedora.
BINGO! The subject is Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), because the fedora hat takes its name from the title of an 1882 play, Fédora, written for Sarah Bernhardt by the dramatist Victorien Sardou.
Sarah played Princess Fédora, the heroine of the play, who wore a center-creased, soft brimmed hat. After Sarah introduced the fedora their popularity soared and they also became a signature item for Sarah, who continued to wear variations of the fedora, often with feathers, throughout her long career.
Once identified as Sarah Bernhardt the likeness is quite apparent. The cameo was probably modelled from several different images of Sarah, and the composition would also be dictated by the fragility of the opal layer and how it is randomly deposited on the ironstone.
The androgynous looks of the cameo character provides another clue to the identity. If not for the long hair it wouldn’t be immediately apparent if this is a man or woman. That fits with Sarah who was well known for performing both female and male roles, including her notable movie appearance as Hamlet in 1900 when she was one of the first celebrities to be captured on film.
Wilhelm Schmidt had emigrated with his family to the USA in 1915 (aged 70) and lived and worked there for the next 11 years. This cameo was possibly carved during that time, and as Sarah was a popular celebrity in the USA it may have been a commemorative piece following her death in 1923.