The French actress Sarah Bernhardt designed this inkwell with herself as a recumbent winged sphinx, including the wings of a bat and the claws of a griffin. A pen is meant to rest in the hair and ink in a bowl at her feet, under a pile of books and a skull. The masks of tragedy and comedy are on either side.
In 1873, Bernhardt performed the role of Berthe de Savigny in the melodrama Le Sphinx at the Comédie Française, together with the actress Sophie Croizette (1847-1901) as Blanche. Adapted from the novel Julie de Trécours by Ostave Feuillet (1821-1890), the story includes suicide and death on stage by Blanche, who wore a poison ring in the shape of a sphinx. When Bernhardt toured several plays in 1880, she took over the part of Blanche, with much success. Both in New York City and in London, Bernhardt exhibited a cast of her self-portrait as the sphinx while the show was being performed.
For more on Bernhardt, see the library’s Sarah Bernhardt Collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, theater programs and playbills, photographs, and other material, Rare Books (Ex) TC134: http://library.princeton.edu/libraries/firestone/rbsc/aids/tc134.pdf