Misia Sert (born Maria Zofia Olga Zenajda Godebska; 30 March 1872 – 15 October 1950) was a pianist of Polish descent who hosted an artistic salon in Paris. She was a patron and friend of numerous artists, for whom she regularly posed.
Maria Zofia Olga Zenajda Godebska was born on 30 March 1872 in Tsarskoye Selo, outside of Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire. Her father, Cyprian Godebski was a renowned Polish sculptor and professor at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. Her mother, Zofia Servais, of Russian-Belgian extraction, was the daughter of noted Belgian cellist, Adrien-François Servais. It was a musical household which hosted concerts performed by noted musicians. Franz Liszt was a friend of the family. It was in this environment that Sert received her musical education, her grandfather teaching her to read music while she was not much more than an infant. Under his mentorship, she became a gifted pianist.
At age 21, Sert married her twenty-year-old cousin Thadée (Tadeusz) Natanson, a Polish émigré art connoisseur and businessman. Natanson frequented the haunts favored by the artistic and intellectual circles of Paris.
Image: Thadée Natanson and his wife Misia Godebska in the garden of their country home, ‘Le Relais’, c.1899 (b/w photo), French Photographer / Collection Annette Vaillant, France / The Bridgeman Art Library
The Natanson home on the Rue St. Florentine became a gathering place, for such cultural lights as Marcel Proust, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Odilon Redon, Paul Signac, Claude Debussy, Stéphane Mallarmé, and André Gide. The entertainment was lavish. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec enjoyed playing bartender at Natanson’s parties, and became known for serving a potent cocktail— a drink of colorful layered liqueurs dubbed the Pousse-Café. All were mesmerized by the charm and youth of their hostess.
The Pousse café cocktail, recipe here
The creative minds of the Belle Époque were at her fingertips. Claude Debussy aired his compositions on Misia’s piano at 9 rue Saint-Florentin. Mallarmé, an old friend, presented her with a poem handwritten on a Japanese fan. Colette and her exploitative husband Willy were frequent callers to her salon. Situated near Place de la Concorde, the Natansons’ apartment was a riot of colour and pattern. Vuillard couldn’t wait to paint Misia in her hotchpotch surroundings. He was spellbound by her, and his adoration for his muse infused all his work during the most lucrative part of his career.
Marcel Proust used Misia as the prototype for the characters of “Princess Yourbeletieff” and “Madame Verdurin” in his novel In Search of Lost Time. She was “la reine de Paris” at the turn of the 20th century, painted by Lautrec, Renoir, Vuillard, Vallotton, adored by writers who also were indebted to her like Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé.
Maurice Ravel dedicated Le Cygne (The Swan) in “Histoires naturelles” and La Valse (The Waltz) to her.
In 1889, Thadée Natanson and his brothers debuted La Revue blanche, a periodical committed to nurturing new talent and showcasing the work of the post-Impressionists, Les Nabis. Sert became the muse and symbol of La Revue blanche, appearing in advertising posters created by Toulouse-Lautrec, Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard.
The Revue Blanche was one of the most influential artistic and literary journals in Europe at the turn of the century. The journal was published in twelve editions and appeared between 1891 and 1903. It was a tremendously influential vehicle for Symbolist writers and Post-Impressionist painters. Contributors to La Revue Blanche included Alfred Jarry, Marcel Proust, Stéphane Mallarmé, André Gide and Guillaume Apollinaire. Illustrations by Les Nabis painters Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard graced its pages, with Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of Misia skating across the cover of issue 60.
Many of the visual artists whose work appeared in La Revue Blanche were members of the Nabis. Inspired by Paul Gauguin and the Synthetic style developed within his circle in the late 1880s-early 1890s, the Nabis sought to simplify forms through flat areas of subjective, non-descriptive color bordered by linear patterns. Printmaking was a very important part of their artistic activity and they contributed prints for publication as covers and illustrations for La Revue Blanche and other like-minded periodicals. Along with their contemporary, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, many of the artists turned their enormously sophisticated manipulation of color lithography to the service of commercial advertising projects.
She had a long friendship and business association with Sergi Diaghilev and was involved in all creative aspects of the Ballets Russes – from friendships with its dancers, to input on costume designs, to choreography.
She introduced Diaghilev to Ravel, and they worked together on Daphnis et Chloé, which premiered in 1912. She then brought together the collaborative team of Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Léonide Massine, who created the surrealist ballet Parade in 1917. Her greatest contribution to the Ballets Russes was the masterful combinations of composers and artists that she brought together and into Diaghilev’s circle. Misia also introduced Diaghilev to Coco Chanel, and Chanel began to work with the Ballets Russes as well.
Through the years she supplied funds for the often financially distressed ballet company. On the opening night of “Petrushka”, she came to the rescue with the 4000 francs needed to prevent repossession of the costumes. When Diaghilev lay dying in Venice she was at his side and, after his death in August 1929, she paid for his funeral, honoring the man who had been such an important influence in the world of ballet.
Long form articles:
Published by Modern Library (2003)
Published by Thames & Hudson (2008)