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The queen of Paris: Misia Sert as a muse and patron to painters

Renoir, Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Vuillard were united not only by France or similar art movement, but also by a woman. Cherchez la femme, as the French say. One of the most extraordinary and colorful women in France at the turn of the 20th century was Misia Nathanson-Edwards-Sert, née Godebska — muse, inspiration and patron of the arts to many of the most prominent writers, painters and musicians.

Misia did not create anything, but through the people she met throughout her life and her magnetic presence alongside artists of the time, she became an arbiter of taste for several decades. The queen of Paris, the coquette of Belle Époque Paris, Sert was painted by some of the best known artists in the world.

The queen of Paris: Misia Sert as a muse and patron to painters
Many paintings of Misia by the most prominent painters of her time attest to her popularity as an artist’s model, the different paintings showing her at the piano, in her salons, with husband and friends. It was said that the painter Vuillard was especially infatuated with her — his numerous paintings of her are a testimony to that very fact. Toulouse-Lautrec called her ‘L'Alouette/The Lark', was one of her closest friends, and painted her often. One of the covers of La Révue Blanche is his drawing of her in a beautiful ice-skating costume and a hat with feathers like plumes of smoke rising into the air. Very much part of Lautrec’s world, Misia and friends often frequented Montmartre and its cafés concerts, where they heard Yvette Guilbert (also often painted by Toulouse-Lautrec), Aristide Bruant performing at the Chat Noir and Vincent Hyspa singing to Eric Satie’s accompaniment, while Claude Debussy, ‘aloof and enigmatic, sat quietly listening in a corner'. The fin-de-siècle world of theatre, dance and art would become Misia’s new focus.
She was born Maria Zofia Olga Zenajda Godebska at Tsarskoye Selo, the Russian imperial residence out

She was born Maria Zofia Olga Zenajda Godebska at Tsarskoye Selo, the Russian imperial residence outside St. Petersburg, where her father, Polish sculptor Cyprien Godebski, was working on a reconstruction project. Her mother died in childbirth, leaving Godebski to raise her. Except he wasn’t particularly interested in the job, so she was shipped to Brussels to live with her grandparents, and then sent to a convent boarding school. She was an exceptionally talented pianist and as a child played Beethoven sitting on the lap of Franz Liszt, a family friend.

But piano lessons were too pedestrian to keep Misia’s interest for long. Her passion for the arts was far broader and deeper, and her interest in surrounding herself with the creative luminaries of the day was powerful. A member of the haute bourgeoisie by birth and marriage, she became a central figure in Paris’s arts and intellectual scene, paving her way with patronage. Few who knew her accused her of feigning interest in the arts simply to get close to famous artists. Still, many of those artists knew she was always good for a little infusion of cash.

Left: Misia Sert as an influential tastemaker in Belle Époque France. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Misia at the time of La Revue blanche

Sert claimed she took "only husbands, never lovers." Of course, her rumored affair with Coco Chanel tells a different story. But Misia was married three times, to dynamic, successful men. The first was Thadée Natanson, a Polish emigré and socialist. Natanson launched a magazine, La Revue Blanche, where he featured the work of new painters .

The Nathanson’s Parisian salon as well as their country estate, La Grangette, became the meeting points of the Parisian haute bourgeoisie, with regular visitors. Misia, who became Madame Thadée Natanson in 1893, did not participate directly in this intellectual ferment, but welcomed her husband’s closest contributors with open arms: Coolus, Vuillard, Bonnard, Vallotton and Toulouse-Lautrec, who were all in love with her. At that time she was the embodiment of the elegant Parisian reader of La Revue blanche.

Alfred Natanson (1873−1932)
Lunch at Le Relais in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne: Cipa Godebski, Marthe Mellot
Alfred Natanson (1873−1932)
Lunch at Le Relais in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne: Cipa Godebski, Marthe Mellot, Thadée Natanson, a servant, Edouard Vuillard, Misia Natanson, Romain Coolus, Ida Godebska, Alfred Athis Natanson
Circa 1898−1899. Private collection
© Cliché musée d’Orsay / Patrice Schmidt
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec worked very closely with La Revue Blanche. He designed material promoting the magazine and made Misia the cover girl who personified La Revue Blanche. Lautrec was one of Misia’s Vernisseurs — term she used for artists who painted her. The posters of her by Lautrec, advertising the magazine, immortalised her as la femme nouvelle. Toulouse-Lautrec was influenced by figuraive impressionist painters, especially Monet and Degas, as well as by Japaneese art.

Lautrec created one of the most captivating portraits ever made of Misia in 1895. She is depicted in

Lautrec created one of the most captivating portraits ever made of Misia in 1895. She is depicted in her theater box dressed in a seductive low-back gown, leaning forward to watch the performance. Lautrec’s image has consonance with Proust’s literary characterization of Misia as the Princess Yourbeletieff. "The princess," Proust’s narrator said, "was a sponsor of all these new great men." The narrator describes the princess in her box at the Ballet, "bearing on her head an immense, quivering aigrette, unknown to the women of Paris, which they all sought to copy."

Left: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Madame Thadée Natanson, 1895, Oil on Cardboard

In 1891, French painter, printmaker and a founding member of the avant garde group of Les Nabis
The Nabis (Les Nabis), a group of French painters, are difficult to classify as fully belonging to a major artistic trend like Impressionism, Expressionism, or Art Nouveau. Though contemporaries of all these powerful movements, the Nabi artists directed their art along a narrow and winding course somewhere in between. Read more
Pierre Bonnard met Toulouse-Lautrec and began showing his work at the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. In the same year, Bonnard began an association with La Revue Blanche, for which he designed illustrations. Before he married his lifelong partner Marthe, he was a close companion and an intimate friend of Misia and Thadée who were his valuable patrons. He painted Misia while they remained friends throughout their lives. Bonnard has been described as "the most thoroughly idiosyncratic of all the great twentieth-century painters".

Bonnard painted panels for Misia’s new apartment, when she divorced Thadée Natanson.
Pierre Bonnard. Rose with roses
Rose with roses
1908, 114×146 cm
Pierre Bonnard, "Misia on a Divan," 1907−1914, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Pierre Bonnard, "Misia on a Divan," 1907−1914, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Vuillard’s correspondence reveals he was hopelessly in love with Misia at the time she was married to Thadée Natanson. The night Vuillard looked at her and began to cry, Misia decided, was one of the most beautiful declarations of love any man had ever made to her. Vuillard’s adoration can be detected in the portrait below, in which the seated figure seems to be illuminated in a Belle Epoque interior rendered with depth distortion and unnatural coloring. Vuillard never married.
When Misia and Thadée acquired a country house not far from Paris, Vuillard came to stay, painting h

When Misia and Thadée acquired a country house not far from Paris, Vuillard came to stay, painting her intensively most of the time. His Misia’s Neck, is considered one of the most erotic paintings in the world. Vuillard brought his Kodak camera as well, and took snapshots of Misia and friends, which he used later to stage his paintings. Vuillard’s love for Misia would remain unrequited, unspoken even, for many years to come.

Left: Edouard Vuillard, Misia et Thadée Natanson, 1897, Oil

Fascinated by Misia’s exuberant personality, Felix Vallotton painted a few portraits of her. She particularly adored Misia à sa coiffeuse, (Misia in her dressing room), painted in the summer 1898. Here Vallotton captures her voluptuous, curvy figure, dressed in pink, standing in front of a dressing table, lost in thought and looking away from the mirror. Paintings of Misia are some of the finest in Vallotton’s carrier. Like his friend Vuillard, Vallotton became besotted with Madame Natanson. This is perhaps clear from a series of 10 woodcuts he made in 1898. These Intimites, as he called them, were printed in black and white and published in la Revue that same year to great acclaim
  • Felix Vallotton. Misia a sa coiffeuse, 1898.
  • Felix Vallotton. Misia a son bureau, 1897
Auguste Renoir was also infatuated with Misia and painted her portrait seven times. His perennial cause of complaint was that she refused to pose for him naked. Supposedly, he wrote her love letters which she claims she destroyed. Renoir pleaded with her, she wrote in her memoirs, to fully reveal her breasts. He implored Misia over and over to open her dress lower, "Lower, lower," he begged her. After his death, Misia often reproached herself, as she wrote in her memoirs, "for not having allowed him to see all he wanted." Because Renoir was an artist, she said, "whose exceptional gift for seeing suffered intensely from being deprived of the sight of something which he knew to be beautiful."
  • Pierre Auguste Renoir. Misia. 1904
  • Pierre Auguste Renoir. Misia Sert with lap dog, 1906.
Renoir was one of the few old friends who became closer to Misia after she had divorced Thadee Natan

Renoir was one of the few old friends who became closer to Misia after she had divorced Thadee Natanson. He was a highly moral and fair-minded man and his loyalty to her was the most convincing testament to her character. When he had completed one of the portraits, Misia sent him a blank cheque, asking him to fill in the figures himself. Renoir wrote on it a sum that Misia found ridiculously low. Much to his consternation, his own paintings were beginning to rise greatly in value. Being elderly and arthritic did not stop him from wanting to see that gorgeous bosom, unsurprising for a masterful painter of creamy flesh tones.

Left: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Misia Sert, 1904

Misis’a first divorce involved a questionable commercial arrangement between her first and second husband. Thadée needed money, and Alfred Edwards coveted Thadée's wife. She ran off to Albert Edwards, founder of Paris’s major daily newspaper, Le Matin, and a supporter of La Revue Blanche. But not long after their nuptials, she divorced him. (She kept the flat where Bonnard painted the panels.)

After separating from her second husband, Alfred Edwards, Misia’s life changed when in 1908 she met the Catalan painter José María Sert (1874−1945). A Spanish painter of bold murals, with whom Misia had a passionate and difficult relationship and, reportedly, a sexual awakening. It was also with Sert that Misia expanded her influence on the Parisian art scene.
Through the influence of José María Sert, Misia moved into the avant-guard circle of Serge Diaghilev, who needed money for his Ballet Russes. Among the works of art Misia helped to support were Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Parade by Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau. "Misia possessed," her biographers Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale asserted, "an instinctive grasp of difficult avant-garde
Avant-garde is how modern art critics refer the general trend of new artistic directions that arose in world art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A very thin line separates it from the concept of “modernism”. Read more
works" and give by way of example Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, derived from poetry by Stéphane Mallarmé, elaborating thus, "Nijinsky's fetishistic masturbatory handling of the nymph’s veil upset the audience who expected his double leaps."

Read also: Ballets Russes as a driving force of a new aesthetic of the 20th century

Don’t forget that Picasso designed the cubist style stage sets and costumes for the ballet Parade, one of his forays into theater. This was at the same time that he snatched for his first wife one of Diaghilev’s ballerinas. Proust understood the Russian ballet’s artistic significance. His novel’s narrator displays reverence for "when Paris observed the prodigious flowering of the Ballets Russes, revealing Bakst, Nijinsky, Benois, the genius of Stravinsky."
It was Misia’s love life, as well as her social life, that created her legend. As a young girl, she turned the heads of the melancholic bachelors around her: Vuillard, Bonnard, Vallotton, and Romain Coolus. She was a confidante of Picasso’s, and a friend of Proust, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Cocteau, Gide, Monet, Stravinsky and Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes. She and Coco Chanel were "soul sisters," and likely lovers.

Arguably, Sert was more than a muse or a patron. As Clive James wrote, "Without directly creating anything, she was some kind of artist herself… She gave the artists the gift of her sublime ephemerality and they made it last." He claims that dynamism like hers could never be adequately represented or preserved.
Title Illustration: Misia Natanson en Robe Noire circa 1896−97 by unknown photographer, Archives Vuillard, Paris; Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, 1895

Based on materials from Timeline, Musee d’Orsay