Misia: Reine de Paris

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

The Glittering World of
Madame Verdurinska

Paris Update Misia-robe-noire

“Misia Natanson en Robe Noire” (1896-97). Anonymous © Archives Vuillard, Paris

Few women can claim to have led lives as glamorous as that of Misia Sert (1872-1950), who was not only a friend, muse and patroness to some of the most famous musicians, artists and writers of her time, but was also a talented musician in her own right. This rather amazing woman’s life is currently the subject of an interesting show at the Musée d’Orsay, “Misia: Reine de Paris.”

The beautiful Misia was born in St. Petersburg to a Polish sculptor and professor of art, and to a half-Belgian, half-Russian mother, who died giving birth to her. A child prodigy on the piano, she was sent to a convent school in the Hôtel Biron (now the Rodin Museum) in Paris when she was 10 years old. After studying with Gabriel Fauré, she started her career as a piano teacher and gave some concerts before marrying Thadée Natanson, cofounder of La Revue Blanche, in 1893. Through him she expanded her acquaintanceship to include the artistic luminaries of the time.

Relationships were complicated in Misia’s world. When Natanson encountered financial difficulties, a newspaper magnate named Alfred Edwards came to the rescue – in exchange for Misia, who eventually married him. More bartering for love occurred later when Edwards fell in love with actress Geneviève “Ginette” Lantelme, exciting great jealousy on the part of Misia. Lantelme offered to give up Edwards in exchange for Misia’s pearls, a sum of money and a little loving from Misia herself. Misia refused, and she lost her husband to Lantelme. (Those pearls pop up twice in the show: as a playful decorative pattern in a painting by Pierre Bonnard for Misia’s home and in the form of a real string of pearls that belonged to her.) Misia’s third husband was the wealthy painter José Maria Sert, with whom she had a stormy, on-off relationship, but who at least ensured that she remained solvent.

Something about Misia was thrilling to artists. As Paul Morand put it, “She excited genius… through nothing but the vibration of her being.” The show presents plenty of evidence of her inspirational powers. There are dozens of paintings, photographs and prints of Misia playing the piano, Misia posing, Misia relaxing, Misia doing this and that by the likes of Edouard Vuillard, Bonnard, Félix Vallotton, Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec and many more. Her likeness even shows up on plates decorated by Vuillard and on the famous La Revue Blanche poster by Lautrec (there is a wonderful photo of him in the show wearing his hat, a red shirt and yellow trousers while cooking in Misia’s kitchen).

Composers who might be found playing their latest piece in her drawing room included Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel. Later, she helped keep her great friend Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes going with infusions of cash at critical moments. A painting by Michel Georges-Michel shows her watching the premier of Parade in the company of Diaghilev, Satie, Picasso, Marie Laurencin and Jean Cocteau.

Misia inspired new fashions as well: the aigrette seen bobbing on the heads of women at the opera in many Belle Epoque illustrations was her innovation, immediately copied by all the Parisiennes and picked up by Marcel Proust for his character Princesse Yourbeletieff.

The show ends with a brief look at the final years, when Misia was nearly blind and addicted to morphine (she actually spent 24 hours in jail after a drug arrest when she was in her late 70s). Photos of her taken in Venice by Horst P. Horst in 1947 show that she nevertheless remained elegant until the end.

Although this absorbing show abundantly illustrates Misia’s life, it didn’t give me much of a feel for what Misia the person was really like. She must have had great charm but there are also many hints that she had a piquant character: Proust said that she liked to bring people together so that she could later watch them fall out, for example, and her good friend Coco Chanel nicknamed her Madame Verdurinska, not exactly a compliment, as anyone who has read Proust knows, while Morand described her as “more Madame Verdurin than the original, taking to or rejecting men or women at a glance.”

All that makes her even more interesting and whetted my appetite for reading her memoir, Misia, and one or two of the various biographies.

Heidi Ellison

Musée d’Orsay: 1, rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris. Métro: Solferino. RER: Musée d’Orsay. Tel.: 01 40 49 48 14. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m., until 9:45 p.m. on Thursday. Admission: €9. Through September 9. www.musee-orsay.fr

Reader Barney Kirchhoff writes: “There is a major show on Jose Maria Sert, Misia’s long-suffering spouse, at the Petit Palais, which runs until Aug. 5.”

Reader Michael Barker writes: “Some of the finest portraits in the Misia exhibition – Proust and Stravinsky notably – were by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1861-1942). Blanche was a central figure of Parisian and London artistic, intellectual and bourgeois society during the Belle Epoque. He knew everyone who features in this excellent show at the Musée d’Orsay and, much sought after, painted portraits of pretty well most of them. Although he is less well-known these days than the familiar names of artists mentioned in your review, a monograph by Jane Roberts, the leading Blanche expert, to be published in September, will reveal his pivotal role as a chronicler of those times, both as a portrait painter and via his published memoirs. Among his other achievements, as a literary critic, he made the French aware of Virginia Woolf.”

Heidi Ellison responds: “Thanks to both of you for this important information. Blanche was indeed a key figure and deserves more attention.”

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