Before QEII there was Misia

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec cover for La revue blanche featuring Misia

Queen Elizabeth II may be the most photographed woman in world but my guess is Misia, the Queen of Paris from 1890-1920 was probably the most painted woman of her era.

So how did having dinner with the daughter of a Polish sculptor born in St. Petersburg become the sought after invitation by all Parisian society?

Misia literally became the muse for nearly every important artist, musician and writer during her life, a kind of pre-film Elizabeth Taylor of Culture.

As a young woman, Misia’s magnetic personality, piano playing and ample bosom caught the Nabi artists’ eyes.  Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, Vallotton and Romain Coolus formed the core of avant garde painters who turned away from realism.  For inspiration they looked toward medieval art, Japanese prints, ancient Egypt and Misia.

As the number of painting featuring her grew, Misia figured out how to keep her circle of admirers without having to live with their melancholic poverty.  She possessed the ability to meet and marry the right men.

In 1893 Misia married Thadee Natanson who published La Revue Blanche with his brothers.  Revue Blanche was THE progressive magazine attracting the best writers and artists of the time.  The magazine provided the platform for every political, social and artistic issue during the transition from the 19th to the 20th century.  Misia became the embodiment of the magazine’s elegant Parisian readers.

The plot around her personal life thickened when millionaire Alfred Edwards, the publisher of La Matin newspaper, agreed to bail out her husband’s business in exchange for Misia becoming his fourth wife.  With Edwards’ money, yacht and newspaper, Misia became the friend to musicians Ravel, Stravinsky, and Debussy.

However that life was short lived.

Within a couple of years Edwards fell under the spell of true courtesan and actress Genevieve Lantelme.  Misia attempted to keep her husband by dressing and acting like her young rival.  Misia’s efforts failed and the actress became Edwards’ fifth wife.

Misia countered by becoming involved with Catalan artist Jose Maria Sert.

Through Sert she was introduced de Diaghilev, the director of the Ballet Russes.   Using her large monthly divorce allowance, Misia evolved into the Godmother to Diaghilev’s ballet company.  Her Bonnard decorated Qaui Voltaire drawing room became the center of Paris’ new artistic elite.

Misia (striped robe) with Coco Chanel (white pantsuit) 1923 in Venice

After WWI, Misia called Gabrielle, aka Coco, Chanel her BFF. Together they were a legendary duo of popularity.  As they partied, addicted to heroin and cocaine, Misia’s figure slimmed into the living model for Coco’s creations.

In 1920 Misia married Jose Maria Sert.  Having learned from her previous mistakes, instead of trying to compete against Sert’s young mistress, she too fell in love with “Roussy” and moved her into their house.  Seven years later, Misia tired of the ménage a trios and divorced Sert.  Interesting enough, like Misia’s previous rival, Roussy died young leaving Sert free to reconcile with Misia.

And the dramas continued.

Why my sudden interest in Misia?  She is currently the key subject of a temporary exhibit at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

Looking into Les Tuileries Garden from Musee d’Orsay

Misia was the center of a cultural universe that included the rich and the famous at the turn of the century.   Had I read about her before our visit, I could have added some interesting details to nearly half of the museum’s exhibits.

The Musee d’Orsay’s works are world famous.  An art neophyte would recognize many of the paintings.

The museum’s building, located in the Saint Germain dstrict on the left bank of the Seine, is an attraction in itself.  Orginally a train station, Victor Laloux designed the building in 1898.  After sitting empty when the trains stopped, the government transformed the interior.   It reopened in 1986 housing the French Republic’s painting, sculpture, furniture and photography from 1848-1914, D’Orsay acts as a link between the Louvre and the National Museum of Modern Art .  D’Orsay provides an excellent tour through a diversity of trends: realism, impressionism, symbolism, Nabis and divisionism.

The Misia exhibit continues through 9 September 2012. 

Having read more about her, I think the exhibit is dull and does not do her life justice.  If you go, I suggest either reading Gold and Fizdale’s book Misia: The Life of Misia Sert or the blog It’s About Time which features more photos than the exhibit.

It’s About Time is a fantastic blog.  The art historian author has created a virtual art museum.



Tales by Chapter

%d bloggers like this: