Misia Sert

Queen of Paris

Misia  Godebska Natanson Edwards Sert (1872–1950).  As a wife of an editor of La Revue Blanche she opened the doors of her salon to writers, intellectuals and politicians. She was an influential figure in Parisian cultural life at the time when Paris became the cultural centre of the world. In her early twenties,  Misia was the Belle de la Belle Epoque  who enchanted her artist friends associated with La Revue Blanche, a number of whom fell in love with her.  Later, Misia’s unique personality and  charm, her undisputed taste and intense passion for music, played an important part in her being able to influence the greatest artists, musicians and writers of the times, and earned her the unofficial title of  Queen of Paris.

 

Few women have been painted or drawn by a greater number of well known artists – Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Felix Vallotton and Auguste Renoir never tired of painting Misia Sert. Pablo Picasso who was impressed by her pedigree as the model of Toulouse-Lautrec, painted a portrait of her. Poets, composers and writers,  including Stephané Mallarmé, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Pierre Reverdy and Maurice Ravel, Eric Satie dedicated their works to her. 

Misia’s exciting life and daring personality inspired Jean Cocteau, Collette,  Marcel Proust, Paul Reverdy, Igor Stravinsky, Karol Szymanowski…the list is long. She knew just about everybody who counted in artistic Paris but applied great scrutiny to talent she promoted and encouraged,  a natural catalyst for inspiring creativity. 

I first came across Misia Sert (Godebska,  Natanson, Edwards)  in the  biography of Coco Chanel  by Edmonde Charles-Roux about which I read about 20 years ago. When they met in 1917 Misia became Chanel’s introduction to Le Tout Paris.  They were inseparable, their life long friendship was  turbulent and often gossiped about.   I was fascinated by this woman of Polish origin, who over four decades was pivotal in the culture and fashion of Paris.

Without directly creating anything, Misia was a kind of artist herself,  like Serge Diaghilev, of whom she was the soul-mate and a valued adviser. She electrified Diaghilev by always daring to be different, rejecting accepted tastes and promoting discords. She was an accomplished pianist and her appreciation of music was unique.  The role she took on as an intermediary between the most inspiring creators in the Ballets Russes circle and the arictocratic sponsors,  gave her the powerful position from which she proclaimed her tastes, her likes and dislikes.  Jean Cocteau thought that rebelious spirit run in her blood. Various scholars have attached different grades of importance to her sway and inspiration. Her friend Marcel Proust got round this by using two opposing characters  in his book À la recherche du temps perdu  to represent Misia. 

“….A collector of geniuses, all of whom were in love with her: Vuillard, Bonnard, Renoir, Stravinsky, Picasso….a collector of hearts and of pink quartz Ming trees; indulging her whims, which turned at once into styles accepted by all the imitators, exploited by the decorators, described by the journalists, aped by all the empty-headed society women. Misia, queen of modern baroque, who had based her whole life on the bizzare, the mother-of-pearl and the shell it comes from; Misia the sullen, Misia the crafty, bringing together friends who were not speaking to each other “so that they could quarrel better afterwards”, Proust declared…..Misia of the Paris of the Symbolists, of the Paris of the fauves, of the Paris of the Great War, of the Paris of Versailles Treaty, of the Paris of Venice. Misia as soft as a sofa, but, if you were looking for rest, a sofa that would release the pitchforks of hell. Misia the unsatisfied, whose piercing eyes were still laughing when her lips had already been swollen into a pout.” – Paul Morand

Misia Sert wrote memoirs which are packed with colourful characters, imagined music and paintings. I was captivated.  She moved with ease from the bohemia of Montmartre and Montparnasse to the upper crust,  le gratin  in Faubourg Saint-Honoré, uniting aristocrats and artists on the way.  As we accompany her on her lifetime’s journey we meet inspired painters, musicians, writers and brilliant politicians, decadent fashion designers, hypnotic ballet dancers, sensational beauties and amazing fortune-tellers. It was her curiosity of people that  made her special. This is the story of Misia and the people she knew, of her city – Paris and of the fascinating events which took place during her life.

Her significant position in French culture was acknowledged by an exhibition at Musee d’Orsay in 2012.