Réjane, actress and performer of the Belle Époque

Réjane, actress and performer of the Belle Époque

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Title: Réjane.

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 13.5 - Width 9.5

Technique and other indications: Albumen print. Portrait of Gabrielle Réju, known as Réjane.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 02-007502 / PHO2001-11-2

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: April 2011

Agrégée in Italian, Doctorate in Contemporary History at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines

Historical context

The Boulevard and its queen

The distribution, in the form of postcards, of photographic portraits of actresses was, during the Belle Époque, the proof of their success and also the best way to increase their notoriety. In a Paris eager for shows, the public shares its admiration between two queens of the theater widely "mediatized" through portraits: Sarah Bernhardt (see Sarah Bernhardt by Nadar and The birth of stardom), the great diva of dramatic theater, and Réjane, undisputed sovereign of the comic and brilliant genre, but also fine dramatic performer. A performer as sparkling as he is sensitive, Réjane is the undisputed queen of the Boulevard, this "true meridian of Parisian gaiety whose reputation extended far beyond its borders", as François Baudot defines it.

Born in Paris on June 5, 1856 in the popular district of Porte-Saint-Martin, Gabrielle Charlotte Réju is a child of the ball: her father, a former actor and former director of a troupe in the provinces, is a controller at the theater L 'Ambiguous; her mother works as a cashier in the same theater. In 1862, Gabrielle lost her father; her mother dreams for her of a future as a schoolteacher, but the child has already contracted what she will one day qualify as "red and gold disease of the theater" and secretly witnesses the latest exploits of the "Talma du Boulevard", Frédérick Lemaître. In 1874, Gabrielle obtained the second prize for interpretation at the Conservatoire, which would have enabled her to join the Odeon troupe, if the theater director, Félix Duquesnel, had not "forgotten" to hire her ... Four years later, thanks to Coquelin elder, she finally obtained a contract at the prestigious Vaudeville theater and was now called Réjane. Hailed as "the great actress of the new era" by the severe Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, who compared her to Rachel, a great actress of the romantic era, Réjane triumphed in both vaudeville comedies and in the contemporary repertoire. (Sardou, Daudet, Bernstein, Bataille); influenced by André Antoine's Théâtre-Libre, she also successfully approaches naturalist theater.

Image Analysis

An actress who dictates fashion

In 1895, Réjane achieved international notoriety thanks to a tour of America. In the last two decades of her career, the actress divided herself between the stage and the seventh art, and on two occasions, in 1900 and in 1911, starred in a film version of the work she made her hobbyhorse, Madame Sans-Gêne.

According to a habit common to showwomen and Parisian demi-mondaines, Réjane entrusts her image to the care of the most illustrious photography workshops (see Cléo de Mérode, an icon between Romanticism and Symbolism), like that of the Reutlinger (see La Belle Otero, emblem of the Belle Époque), who achieves this shot in which the 40-year-old actress, standing in front of a simple white curtain that contrasts with the elegance of her outfit, adopts the proud gaze and the confident pose that are part of her status as a high-level theater artist. Réjane's pretty face is framed by the feathered hat, by the bands of her hairstyle and by the pearl necklace which encircles her neck; the light dress contrasts with the dark tones of the hat, belt and gloves which, according to the fashion of the time, completely cover the forearm. Coquetry, Réjane raises the train of her dress. Like his theatrical play, his elegant but simple outfit is a mark of modernity: with a surorné style, “Second Empire” dresses designed by the naturalized French Briton Worth, Réjane actually prefers the clean lines of Doucet's creations, dictating new trends from the boards at a time when fashion does not yet have its own media scene. As François Baudot observes, the actress allows the couturiers to "present on stage, in a setting which allowed all daring, new suggestions which, afterwards, would be adopted, after a period of elementary reflection, by many spectators" .


A sensitive interpreter of her time

Long linked to Paul Porel (a.k.a Paul Désiré Parfouru), former actor, director of the Odéon, then of the Théâtre du Vaudeville and the Gymnase, whom she married in 1893 and from whom she divorced in 1905, Réjane successfully embarked on the career of theater director: she in 1906 bought the Nouveau-Théâtre by Aurélien Lugné-Poë, which she renamed Théâtre Réjane and directed until 1918. It was there that, in 1911, she gave the French premiere of The blue Bird (1908) by Maurice Maeterlinck. Bought by Léon Volterra, the Théâtre Réjane becomes the Théâtre de Paris.

An energetic woman despite her failing health, Réjane died of a heart attack on June 14, 1920; Marcel Proust, a long-time friend of the actress and her son Jacques, is the first to go to her deathbed and pay tribute to her. Thinking of Réjane's fragile health, Cécile Sorel does not hide her admiration for "this martyrdom of her art, which officiates every evening for beauty, death and love. Perhaps at the bottom of the painful pleasure of giving oneself, is there a bottom of holiness? ".

Three roles showcase Réjane's eclectic talent, which moves from popular repertoire to avant-garde pieces. That of Germinie Lacerteux, the title role of the play (1888) taken from the eponymous novel (1865) by the Goncourt brothers, aroused a real political scandal and an interpellation in the Chamber because of its theme, the miserable conditions for servants. Another disturbing subject, the self-determination of women, is tackled by Nora Helmer, the naive wife, then rebellious of the drama Doll house (1879) by Henrik Ibsen, role that Réjane created in Paris in 1894. But the character with which Réjane ends up identifying is Madame Sans-Gêne, protagonist of the successful play by Victorien Sardou and Émile Moreau, inspired by Marshal Lefebvre , a former laundress who entered the Napoleonic court (in reality, Madame Sans-Gêne was the female soldier Marie-Thérèse Figueur): the actress recognizes herself in this incarnation of popular France, sincere and courageous, which the ruling classes welcome graciously since 'it does not represent any social "danger". It should be noted, however, that Réjane was among the first public figures to defend Dreyfus (see " I accuse... ! "From Zola and The mobilization of the Dreyfusards).

Queen of the Boulevard, Réjane reveals the poetry of everyday life. Sylvie Jouanny writes of her: "Like La Duse, Réjane does not reproduce, she creates, she uses such punctual or banal behavior as a starting point towards a generalization that ends in poetry, where the everyday meets the exceptional; the superficial, the deep; the punctual, the general. "

  • women
  • fashion
  • theater
  • stardom
  • Belle Epoque
  • Barbey d'Aurevilly (Jules)
  • Goncourt (Brothers)
  • Ibsen (Henrik)
  • Maeterlinck (Mauritius)
  • Proust (Marcel)
  • Réjane
  • Sardou (Victorian)
  • scandal
  • photography
  • actor


François BAUDOT, Réjane, the queen of the Boulevard, Göttingen, Éditions 7L, 2001.Sylvie JOUANNY, The Actress and Her Doubles: Figures and Representation of the Performer at the End of the 19th Century, Geneva, Droz, 2002. RÉJANE, "When I was Madame Sans-Gêne", in Readings for all, October 15, 1913, p. 106-115 Illustrations by René Lelong.

To cite this article

Gabriella ASARO, "Réjane, actress and performer of the Belle Époque"

Video: Paris, La Belle Époque: Mimi Bluette, Vals - Meximarimba Band, 1928