Alfred Stevens, painter of fashionable Paris, met the actress Sarah Bernhardt in about 1887, and did several portraits of her. In a number of these she posed as a character from history or from literature. Here we see her as Mary-Magdalene, the sinner who later converted and took up the life of a hermit. The long hair, the skull one of the main symbols in vanitas paintings and the desolate landscape in the background link up with an iconographic tradition that goes back to medieval times. Typical for the 19th century, however, are the explicit sensuality and the melancholy, almost hallucinatory stare with which Mary-Magdalene looks at the viewer, thereby blurring the characters religious context. This painting was commissioned by the Parisian dealer Georges Petit. Its provocativeness, even though it corresponds entirely to what Mary Magdalene represented, shocked the general public because they preferred to see her portrayed as a remorseful penitent.