Frédérique O’Connell, Portrait de Rachel, Paris, vers 1853
Frédérique O’Connell (Potsdam, 1823 – Paris, 1885)
Paris, circa 1853
Oil on canvas, 88 x 66 cm
The French tragedian Rachel, daughter of Jewish pedlars from Alsace and Lorraine, is emblematic of the generation born after the Emancipation who integrated fully into French cultural life in the mid-19th century. Born Élisabeth Rachel Félix in 1821, this child prodigy was the first “star” of the French stage before Sarah Bernhardt. She arrived in Paris with her parents, passionate theatre-lovers, after a poverty-stricken, itinerant childhood in Switzerland and Lyon, where she had to beg to survive. A gifted actress, she was taught by the artist Alexandre Choron then the actors Saint-Aulaire and Samson. Hired by the Théâtre-Français at the age of seventeen, she made her début in Corneille’s Horace and went on to play all the great tragic heroines.
Her fascinating stage presence aroused passions and fired the public imagination. The mistress of Count Walewski, Napoleon I’s illegitimate son, she gave birth to Alexandre Walewski, the emperor’s only grandson. When she died aged only twenty-seven, she was worshipped by the writers Alfred de Musset and Théophile Gautier and had been immortalised by painters. For the upholders of the Enlightenment she embodied the successful outcome of education and apprenticeship, yet like many Jews she was ostracised by conservative and anti-Semitic circles.