Exposition au musée

Misia, Queen of Paris

From June 12th to September 09th, 2012
Félix Vallotton
Misia à sa coiffeuse, en 1898
Musée d'Orsay
acquis avec la participation de la Fondation Meyer, 2004
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
See the notice of the artwork

Music above all

Pierre Bonnard-Misia au piano
Pierre Bonnard
Misia au piano, 1902
San Francisco, Collection of Ann & Gordon Getty
© DR

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 a muse, a patron and an arbiter of taste for several decades.
Born into a family of musicians, she was introduced to the piano at a very young age and studied under Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). An excellent performer, she gave her first public concert in 1892 but refused to make the piano her career, playing instead for her own pleasure and for her friends.

Edouard Vuillard-Misia au piano
Edouard Vuillard
Misia au piano, 1899
Collection particulière
© Jean Vong Photography Inc, New York

Several portraits show her sitting at her piano, surrounded by friends and family, in the drawing room of her apartment in the rue Saint-Florentin. Closely framed or distorted to include a broad view of the décor of the setting, these portraits show the most intimate side of Misia, for whom music was both a refuge and something to be shared.
Her musical tastes were extensive. She was an enthusiastic performer of Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin, was passionate about Debussy, at the time of her friendship with Mallarmé, and about Ravel who, in 1906, dedicated Le Cygne (The Swann) to her, based on Jules Renard's Les Histoires naturelles and the symphonic poem La Valse (The Waltz) in 1920. With the arrival of the twentieth century, Misia’s musical tastes turned towards a new aesthetic embodied by Satie, Stravinski, Auric and Poulenc.
Misia at the time of La Revue blanche

Alfred Natanson-Déjeuner au Relais à Villeneuve-sur-Yonne : Cipa Godebski, Marthe Mellot, Thadée Natanson, une domestique, Edouard Vuillard, Misia Natanson, Romain Coolus, Ida Godebska, Alfred Athis Natanson
Alfred Natanson
Déjeuner au Relais à Villeneuve-sur-Yonne : Cipa Godebski, Marthe Mellot, Thadée Natanson, une domestique, Edouard Vuillard, Misia Natanson, Romain Coolus, Ida Godebska, Alfred Athis Natanson, vers 1898-1899
Collection particulière
© Cliché musée d'Orsay / Patrice Schmidt

In 1889, the sons of Adam Natanson – Alexandre, Thadée and Alfred – founded in Brussels a cultural and artistic publication called La Revue blanche (1889-1903), after its white cover. A crucible of progressive ideas, it attracted the best writers and most innovative artists of the period. It covered all issues– political, artistic and social – providing a platform for the major debates that preoccupied society at this moment of transition from the 19th to the 20th century.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec-Affiche pour La Revue blanche
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Affiche pour La Revue blanche, 1895
Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France
© Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

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.
The Natansons' country houses, La Grangettein Valvins and Le Relais in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne , served as annexes to the journal’s offices. Ideas and idylls were born and completed here, as we can see in many photographs and paintings in which Misia is always present.

Madame Verdurinska

Pierre Bonnard-Misia et Edwards assis sur le pont du yacht Aimée
Pierre Bonnard
Misia et Edwards assis sur le pont du yacht "Aimée", en 1906
Musée d'Orsay
donation sous réserve d'usufruit de M. Antoine Terrasse, 1992
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
See the notice of the artwork

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). He introduced her into the artistic circles of the avant-garde and to Serge de Diaghilev.
Deeply moved when she first saw Boris Godounov, Misia committed herself to help the impresario by providing financial support for his enterprise.
She thus became the godmother of the Ballets Russes, present at all the performances, but never interfering with the aesthetic decisions.

Félix Vallotton-Misia à son bureau
Félix Vallotton
Misia à son bureau, 1897
L'Annonciade, Musée de Saint-Tropez
© Photographe Jean-Louis Chaix, ville de Saint-Tropez

In the luxurious setting of her drawing room on the Quai Voltaire, decorated by Bonnard, Misia brought together the new artistic elite: "[...] she brought out genius just as certain kings can forge victors, purely with the vibration of her being, [...] more Mme Verdurin than the original, taking to or rejecting men and women at first glance" (Paul Morand).
Madame Verdurinska, as her friend Gabrielle Chanel nicknamed her, became an arbiter of taste and fashion, bringing together her friends just to set them against each other at a later date. The cream of Parisian society sought to be invited to her dinners and after-theatre suppers.
"Love, Castanets, and Tango"

Edouard Vuillard-Misia Sert et sa nièce Mimi Godebska. Les Tasses noires
Edouard Vuillard
Misia Sert et sa nièce Mimi Godebska. Les Tasses noires, 1925 (retravaillés en 1934-37)
Collection Neffe-Degandt Ltd
© Photo Roy Fox

It was Misias 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.
Her divorce from Thadée Natanson, against a background of secret negotiations led by Alfred Edwards, was the inspiration for Mirbeaus play, Le Foyer.
In 1911, the accidental death of her rival for Edwards affections, the actress Geneviève Lantelme, was never explained. On the borders of the panels painted for her apartment on the Quai Voltaire, Bonnard had fun with references to the wrangling between the two women over Misias pearls.

Edouard Vuillard-Misia Natanson de profil en voiture, Cannes
Edouard Vuillard
Misia Natanson de profil en voiture, Cannes, 1901
Collection particulière
© Archives Vuillard, Paris

Misia never recovered from being abandoned by Sert for the young Roussadana Mdivani. She tried to live an impossible life that included the three of them but this came to an end with the death of Roussy in 1938.
Almost blind by this time, and addicted to morphine, Misia undertook some most unlikely escapades to Venice where her gaunt figure and her elegance blended perfectly with the quaint charms of the city where her only true friend, Serge de Diaghilev had died in 1929.
After three marriages and three divorces, the "Queen of Paris", as she was nicknamed by the press, died a solitary figure.


Anonyme-Misia Natanson en robe noire
Misia Natanson en robe noire, 1896-1897
Collection particulière
© Archives Vuillard, Paris

March 30. 1872
Birth in Saint Petersburg of Marie Sophie Olga Zénaïde Godebska, known as Misia. Her father, Cyprien Godebski (1835-1909), was a Polish sculptor. Her mother, Sophie, daughter of the virtuoso Belgian cellist Adrien-François Servais, died in childbirth leaving two other children: Franz (1866-1948) and Ernest (1869-1890).
Birth of Cyprien (Cipa), Misias half-brother.
Misia takes piano lessons from Gabriel Fauré.
The Godebski family buys La Grangette, a country house in Valvins, near Fontainebleau.
Marriage in Ixelles (Belgium) of Misia and Thadée Natanson (1868-1951), a Polish lawyer, businessman and journalist, founder of the Revue blanche and her cousin by marriage. The couple move to 9, rue Saint-Florentin, near the Place de la Concorde.
Misia becomes friendly with the artists and contributors of the Revue blanche : Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Romain Coolus, Octave Mirbeau, Tristan Bernard, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, among others.
Misia and Thadée buy Le Relais, a country house in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne.
Misia meets Alfred Edwards (1856-1914), a very wealthy businessman, owner of mass circulation newspapers, the Théâtre de Paris and Casino de Paris.
Misia and Thadée Natanson divorce.
Marriage of Misia and Alfred Edwards. The couple live at 244, rue de Rivoli, and rent a pied-à-terre at the Hôtel du Rhin, place Vendôme. Edwards has a 35 metre yacht built named Aimée (after the initials of Misia Edwards).
Edwards falls in love with the actress and courtesan Geneviève Lantelme (1887-1911), whom he would eventually marry in 1910.
Misia and Edwards separate.
Misia begins an affair with Sert.
First performance of Modest Mussorgskys Boris Godounov at the Opera in Paris. It was probably here that Misia first met Serge de Diaghilev (1872-1929).
Misia divorces Edwards, who gives her a large monthly allowance.
First season of the Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet.
Misia introduces Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) to Diaghilev.
Misia moves into an apartment at 29, quai Voltaire.
Germany declares war on France. Misia, accompanied by Cocteau, organises convoys of vehicles to go to the aid of the wounded at the front.
Misia lives partly at the Hôtel Meurice.
Scandal of the ballet Parade.
Misia meets Gabrielle Chanel (1883-1971) who becomes her closest friend during the interwar years. Misia and Sert introduce her to the Parisian arts scene.
Misia and José María Sert are married in a religious ceremony. Honeymoon in Venice accompanied by Coco Chanel. This is when Misia and Sert introduce the young dress designer to Diaghilev.
Sert meets the Georgian sculptress Isabelle Roussadana Mdivani (1906-1938), known as Roussy, who becomes his mistress. Roussy lives with Sert and Misia at the Hôtel Meurice.
Misias third divorce. Sert moves into the Hôtel Lutetia with Roussy.
Misia moves into a large apartment at 3, rue de Constantine, where she will live from 1928 to 1946.
Sert marries Roussy in a civil ceremony at the consulate in The Hague.
Misia rushes to Diaghilevs bedside as he lies ill in the Grand Hôtel du Lido in Venice. Diaghilev dies at dawn on August 19.
Sert marries Roussy in a religious ceremony at the Spanish church in Paris.
Misia accompanies Chanel to Hollywood, where Chanel is to design the costumes for the stars in four films produced by Samuel Goldwyn.
Misia gives a concert with the pianist Marcelle Meyer in the ballroom of the Hôtel Continental in Paris and at the Théâtre des Ambassadeurs.
Roussy dies at the age of thirty-two. After her death, Sert is reconciled with Misia, although both retain their own apartments. Misia suffers with severe eye problems. She becomes even closer to her niece Mimi Blacque-Belair.
Death of José María Sert in Barcelona.
The journalist and critic Boulos (Paul Ristelhueber, 1910-1972), friend of Serge Lifar and Serts secretary, becomes Misias confidant: she recounts her memories, which are published after her death. Boulos supplies her with morphine and takes drugs with her.
Misia renews her friendship with Coco Chanel - the two had moved apart during the war.
Following a haemorrhage that resulted in the loss of an eye, Misia goes to Switzerland for medical treatment.
Misias last visit to Venice.
Death of her niece Mimi in a car accident.
Misia spends twenty-four hours in prison, having been arrested by the police for using drugs.
October 15. 1950
Death of Misia at her home in rue de Rivoli. Gabrielle Chanel lays out her body. After a religious ceremony at the Polish church in Paris, Misia is buried in the Samoreau cemetery, near Valvins, in the same tomb as her niece.