Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme is organising the first exhibition devoted to Rachel (Élisabeth Rachel Félix, 1821–58), the first European stage star.
After entering the Comédie-Française at 17, Rachel played a major part in the renaissance of French classical tragedy during the Romantic era. With her voice and stagecraft she breathed new life into the heroines of Corneille and Racine. The passions she expressed on stage deeply moved theatregoers from all walks of life and won her international renown and the adulation of monarchs, high society and the general public alike. Numerous artists and authors of the Romantic period left us testaments to their admiration for Rachel both as actress and woman. Her Paris stage debut in 1838 came at a time when the classical theatre was thought to be in its death throes, to be already supplanted by the Romantic theatre. A young actress gave tragedy a new lease of life, and turned the tables: soon it was Romantic drama which the Théâtre-Français found itself reluctant to stage.
The second of the six children of Alsatian Jewish peddlers, Jacob (Jacques) and Esther Hayyah (Thérèse) Félix, and a French citizen under the Civic Emancipation, Rachel always remained profoundly in phase with the Jews’ entry into and participation in modernity. Although singular, her career was characteristic of the collective experience of the second generation of Jews born after the Emancipation and who participated fully in French social, economic, political and cultural life. Furthermore, for many French people, Rachel personified the great allegorical figures of Tragedy, History and the Republic. Her example illustrates the extent to which an often passionate but at any rate profound and intimate adhesion to French culture was an essential component in the construction of emancipated French Judaism.
In Rachel we find all the cultural and political paradoxes and contradictions of her time. She was a symbol of legitimist and republican virtue in equal measure. Her performance as La Marseillaise had the public in raptures in 1848. But if she exercised such fascination it was also because she personified the social ascension of the lower classes, and was proud of it. Never hiding her humble origins and always asserting the importance of her family ties, she worked furiously at educating and cultivating herself and modelling her image. But despite her aspiration to affluence and respectability, she could never avoid details of her private life fuelling the whiff of scandal that clung to her name. Although never developing a critical awareness of the condition of women in the society of her time, she was loath to espouse the model of the bourgeois, cultivated woman defined by the notables of her time – married, a mother, either discreet or ceasing to appear on stage – and constantly asserted her desire to remain independent in order to devote herself fully to her art.
The Rachel phenomenon in many ways transcends that of the successful actress. Many biographies of her were written, and she became one of the most famous women of her century. Other artists, men and women, may also have left their mark on their time, but Rachel forged a new model of the actress and woman.
The works exhibited come from private and public collections, notably from the Comédie-Française, the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme’s partner for this exhibition. The exhibition catalogue is abundantly illustrated with reproductions of these works and includes essays on Rachel and the society of her time.
Partner: Comédie-Française & bibliothèque-musée
Support: Drac Ile-de-France and Fondation Rothschild - Institut Alain de Rothschild
© Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme