Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Savoir Faire with Misia

Misia Sert, born in the shadows of the Tsars at Tsarkoe Selo in 1872, patron of the arts and composers, friend of the avante gard, definitely had the savoir faire and the courage to carry herself through the many husbands she had and her glittering salons in Paris. Anybody who wanted to be somebody crossed her threshold, as the list of Misia Sert's friends would read like a who's who of the cultural elite of Paris from the end of the Second Empire to World War II.

A gifted pianist she married before she was 16 her first husband Tadeusz Natansan, a Polish émigré politician and journalist, later to become the editor of La Revue blanche magazine. When Natanson was on the brink of bankruptcy, the newspaper magnate Alfred Edwards saved him, on condition that he surrender his wife to him. Duly Misia upheld her part of the bargain and lived with Edwards. Misia's third marriage was to the Spanish painter Jose Maria Sert (1876-1945). She loved Sert, and gave him up when he fell in love with another woman, but kept his name.

She hosted a literary-artistic salon in Paris and acquired considerable influence in Parisian musical and artistic circles, Claude Debussy, as well as painters such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vuillard, and Pierre Bonnard were among her guests. She was a confidante of Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, an early patron of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and a close friend of the designer Coco Chanel. The painters painted her and the composers aired their masterpieces at her piano, which she herself could play very well. Her taste was original, penetrating and in most cases definitive. Without directly creating anything, she was some kind of artist herself— rather like Diaghilev, of whom she was the soul-mate and valued adviser. However you had to be of note and gifted even before Misia wanted to know you.

One of the most famous portraits of Misia, is that of Renoir, now hanging in the National Gallery London. Renoir longed to paint Misia with the famous breasts naked, but she would never bare them to him, probably because Edwards was lurking heavily in the adjacent room, ready to exact jealous vengeance even though the artist by that time was an all but total cripple. At one point during her marriage to Edwards, Misia rewarded Renoir for a portrait by giving him a blank cheque. He filled it in with the going rate.

She was one of the models for Toulouse-Lautrec's poster for La Revue Blanche in 1896, in which she is shown as a skater.

Ravel dedicated "Le Cygne" (The Swan) in Histoires naturelles, and La Valse (The Waltz) to her.
Two of her main influences in life who stuck with her to the bitter end were Chanel and Cocteau. In her old age they stuck with her, no matter how old and feeble she had become, not just through the ravages of old age but for the habit of injecting morphine straight through her clothes.

The catalyst for launching others on to stardom, Misia is less remembered than what she should be, and went through life with great savoir faire!


  1. Misia was AMAZING!
    Her biography is one of the most interesting accounts of the late 19th Century - early 20th Century Parisian art scene.

  2. It is quite interesting to notice how throughout history there was always this kind of ladies that had great importance for the artistic scene of the time and normally are fast forgotten.

    Thank you for the post. I did not know her but I am now eager to learn more about Misia.

  3. I'd like to think I'm the Misia for Chefs...but morphine thru her clothes! That is truly hedonistic!

  4. Fabulastic- so true, women like Misia are quickly forgotton and their only legacy are the portraits which we recognise so easily. Enjoy learning more!

    Jill- A true hedonist she was. Can I come over for dinner??

    Belle- am scouring my library catalogue as we speak for a biography

  5. To be shown Misia as a life lesson. This is a gift to me. Thank you.

  6. Many thanks for this post.

    I spend quite a lot of time thinking and writing about salonieres, in Berlin and Vienna, but also in Paris. But I have never seen Misia Sert's name mentioned before. This is bizarre since everyone recognises the Renoirs and Toulouse Lautrec portraits of Sert easily.

    So why did Sert disappear from salon history do you think? Was she too declasse' perhaps? Or not well enough behaved? Or not connected enough to the right people? It is a mystery.


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