Misia – Muse, Mäzenin und Model
von Anja Weinberger
Misia – muse, patron and model
by Anja Weinberger
Misia – Muse, Mäzenin und Model 
Misia Sert, das reiche, mal glückliche, mal unglückliche, in Polen geborene Kind, saß beim alten Liszt auf dem Schoß, musizierte mit Grieg und Fauré, hat dreimal geheiratet und durch das Geld ihrer Ehemänner die damalige Kunstszene äußerst großzügig unterstützt. Sie wurde von vielen Malern der Zeit porträtiert, Komponisten widmeten ihr ihre Werke, und Schriftsteller ließen sie in Romanen und Theaterstücken aufleben. In ihrem Salon verkehrte Tout-Paris, und Misia war eine von denen, die die Belle Epoque zu der schillernden Zeitspanne machten, die wir heute kennen.
A life so full of the most diverse facets of happiness and unhappiness, of poverty and wealth, of love and dependence – that is a rich treasure trove for those of us born later. What a lot can be read and researched there.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Portrait of Misia Sert (Jeune femme au griffon), 1907. BF565; CC1.0; Public Domain Barnes Foundation
Gabrielle – that is Coco Chanel. The two women had met during the creation of the ballet “Parade” in 1917.
On the occasion of a dinner at an actress’s house, Coco, then in her mid-thirties, sat next to Misia, and the two women liked each other immediately. Coco was still at the beginning of her career as a fashion designer and entrepreneur, and was involved with the great love of her life, the British Arthur “Boy” Capel. Misia, on the other hand, had long been the center of the Parisian salon scene, married for the second time (to millionaire Alfred Edwards), but was already the mistress of Spanish painter Josep Maria Sert, who in turn was the great love of her life.
The two women were to remain friends throughout their lives, helping each other through difficult times, but often rivals , especially when it came to discovering and patronizing emerging artists or supporting important projects.
Misia, the older by ten years, was able to give Gabrielle access to the better Parisian society in the early days of their friendship. She arranged for Coco to design the costumes for Cocteau’s production of Antigone and for “Le Train Bleu”  by the Ballets Russes.
La revue blanche (poster); © Remi Mathis; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nouvelles_de_l%27estampe_-_publicit%C3%A9_d%27apr%C3%A8s_affiche_Toulouse-Lautrec.jpg
The idea for the famous perfume Eau de Chanel, which soon became Chanel No. 5, was also born during a shared glass of champagne between the two friends.
Later, the roles of the women would reverse, and Misia would accompany the long-successful Coco on her visits to Hollywood.
When Misia dies in 1950 at the age of 78, Coco is 67 and will continue to work successfully on her fashion empire for over 20 years.
Eugénie did not survive this birth. For some time the newborn little girl stayed in Russia with her father, but he wasted no time and plunged into the next love affair. He married the wealthy, artistically talented widow and mother of two, Matylda Natanson. Misia was then taken back to her maternal grandmother, Sophie Servais, who – full of grief for her deceased daughter – gladly took in the little girl.
Misia spent the following years in the house where her mother had spent a happy childhood. The Servais mansion seemed to be impregnated with music, there were several grand pianos, which were only very rarely not made to sound. Misia’s cello-playing grandfather had died several years earlier, but even as a widow, Sophie Servais maintained the habit of keeping her house open for friends and their friends. The little girl was lovingly dressed, had plenty of free space, and always had a lap to climb on.
During those carefree years, Franz Liszt also visited the Servais house. There it had recently been discovered that the pretty, clever and lively little Misia was also musically very talented and after a very short time could already play the piano amazingly well. Liszt took her on his lap and there enthroned the little one let sound a few bars from a Beethoven sonata. The greatest pianist of his time, then already an old gentleman, was genuinely impressed and pressed Misia against his wart-covered face.
Madame Thadée Natanson (Misia Godebska, 1872–1950) at the Theater, 1895, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec; CC0 The Met Museum
When Cipa’s mother, Misia’s stepmother Matylda, died at an early age and their father remarried, Misia and Cipa shared the same fate: they were both stepchildren of an unloved and not particularly maternal stepmother.
When the two were grown up and had found partners of their own, they kept in close contact; Cipa is pictured with Misia in several paintings and is easily recognized by his typical profile.
When Misia and her first husband, Tadeusz Natanson, with heavy hearts wanted to sell La Grangette, a country house they loved dearly but too small for their needs, Cipa stepped into the breach and took it over in 1897, keeping the pretty, enchanted property in the family; and when Cipa’s children Mimi and Jean were born in the following years, the house filled with life.
Misia adored the two children and was very fond of Cipa’s Polish wife, Ida.
There, at La Grangette, Maurice Ravel was also a frequent guest, who also loved to play with the Godebski children. He told them stories, gave them imaginative gifts, and composed “Ma mère l’Oie” (Mother Goose) for the two of them. It fell to Misia to practice the rather difficult new work with the children.
Misia and Cipa had mutual friends in the music, literature and art scene. Both were interested in almost all branches of art, especially in the modern trends within it. Thus it happened that the two of them fought three major battles together in defending and classifying “Ubu roi”, “Le Sacre du printemps” and “Parade”.
The performance of the new work was to become the first theatrical scandal that Misia witnessed.
Basically conceived as a parody of greed for power and tyranny, the work set hitherto unknown accents through its monotonous linguistic style, the deformation of important words, and an exaggerated masking of the actors.
1913: Something similar happened with the ballet “Le Sacre du printemps” (Spring Sacrifice) by composer Igor Stravinsky. The brilliant dancer Vaslav Nijinsky painstakingly created the choreography to this novel, very rhythmic music. At its premiere by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the audience was horrified by the revolutionary, primitive dance scene. The work was to make Stravinsky a celebrity and is considered a key work of New Music.
1917: And finally “Parade.” This ballet in one act, based on Jean Cocteau’s thematic framework and with music by Eric Satie, was also created for the Ballets Russes. The set was designed by Pablo Picasso, the choreography was by Leonide Massine, and Ernst Ansermet conducted. At the time, nothing more high-profile was possible. Like “Ubu roi” 20 years earlier, the stage spectacle sparked a veritable scandal. The cubist figures on stage, the noises interwoven with the music, the first ragtime composed in Europe and the extremely close connection of painting, dance, language and mimicry overtaxed the audience at the first attempt, but helped it to immortality on the “long haul”. Apollinaire invented the new adjective “surrealist” for this ballet to express that poetic reality, through its bundled intensity, has a more powerful means of expression than reality itself. As a result of his work on “Parade”, Eric Satie was accepted into the Dada movement.
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Once a month she was allowed to visit her parents; there she met Cipa and could talk with him about the many new impressions. Meanwhile, the Godebskis owned a house in the Rue de Prony, very close to the Parc Morceau. There they resided with great hospitality and a constantly full salon. Misia enjoyed the festivities, and this is how she met Gabriel Fauré. He even agreed to give Misia a piano lesson every week.
So a few years went by. When Misia was fifteen, her stepmother died suddenly. Surprised, she found that Matylda had left her 300,000 francs and some magnificent diamonds. This could lead to the conclusion that Misia liked her stepmother much less than the other way around.
The Two Sisters-in-Law, 1899, Edouard Vuillard; CC0 Cleveland Museum of Art
It saw itself as the mouthpiece of an educated, morally and artistically interested society. Although the Revue hardly existed for more than ten years, the magazine played a very important role in the social development of those years. The contents were prepared with dedication, well put into words and covered most of what was important at that time.
Misia was featured on the cover several times, most famously in an 1895 issue with a famous drawing by Toulouse-Lautrec, “Misia as a skater.”
Misia probably loved her new life more than she loved her husband, who was very much in love with her. Around the Natansons grew one of the most interesting, varied artistic circles that existed in the already bustling and lively metropolis of Paris. Thadée’s fortune enabled them to support young artists, buy their paintings, and have their living rooms decorated. Edouard Vuillard in particular often painted Misia in her living environment.
(When Thadée ran into financial difficulties in 1908, he sold 19 Bonnards, 27 Vuillards, 7 Roussels, and a few Cézannes, Redons, Vallottons, and Seurats).
The couple lived a public yet self-determined life. They often went to the theater, were enthusiastic about Sarah Bernardt on the one hand and Henri Ibsen on the other, they enjoyed visiting concert cafés and the Vélodrome.
In this new phase of her life, the Revue Blanche was a good opportunity for Misia to polish up her not particularly well-founded school education. She read about politics, law, philosophy, poetry, and the humanities. She was able to exchange ideas with Thadée and thus created an amazing general education.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Misia Natanson in Maxime Dethomas’ studio c.1895; Public Domain; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henri_de_Toulouse-Lautrec_and_Misia_Natanson_in_Maxime_Dethomas%27_studio_c.1895.jpg
An important event of those years was the World’s Fair of 1900 and another the Dreyfus scandal. The latter helped Thadée to adopt a critical attitude toward capitalism. He outlined sprawling plans to improve the situation of the working class and increasingly neglected work on the revue blanche. The financial situation became increasingly critical. Eventually, Thadée had become completely entangled in various projects and lost all his money. A tragedy was brewing.
In short, after several painful years of back and forth, Misia finally had a new husband by her side in 1905, and in return Thadeusz Natanson was saved from bankruptcy.
Edwards showered his wife with diamonds, read her every imaginable wish from her eyes, and in many ways offered her a life of luxury. But he also kept her away from much, sometimes even locking her up when he himself left the house. His possessions were extremely superficial in Misia’s eyes, for Edwards did not love things, but only their material value. She, Misia, was quite different. Objects could tell her stories, reminded her of encounters, or connected her to loved ones far away.
One gift, however, really appealed to her. Edwards left her the “Aimée,” a 35-meter houseboat with a salon, dining room and several cabins. A captain and five crew members were part of the gift. They made several cruises with the “Aimée”, always with many friends on board, for example to Trouville, but also on Belgian, Dutch and German canals.
In 1906 Edwards met a young actress who became his next obsession. So in 1908 Misia was left alone, equipped with a monthly check of a handsome amount. The divorce was pronounced in the spring of 1909.
Sert was three years younger than Misia, stocky, rather short, lavish and generous. Like a long-awaited downpour, he flooded her life. Educated as he was, he immediately won over Misia, who hated nothing more than boring conversation. Very quickly, the two bonded in an affair that was also full of physical passion – an amazing, new experience for Misia.
In 1908, she traveled to Rome with her lover at his invitation, where he thoroughly impressed her as a guide and bon vivant.
On her return to Paris, it was clear to Misia that her relationship with the charming, generous, impetuous and also thoroughly successful painter would have a future.
Sert polarized as an artist, but his way of painting was rather unusual. He was never seen at an easel, but always with a sketchpad on which he prepared his large-format murals. His big hit came with the “Sert Room” in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. 
Misia and Sert will not marry until 1920, by which time they will have been a couple for 12 years. The marriage will not last as long again, because in 1925 the Georgian princess Roussy Mdivani enters the life of the two spouses. Roussy’s family tree is not quite decipherable; presumably it was mainly the title “princess” that appealed to the young Georgian. She wrapped Sert around her finger, and Misia also succumbed to her attachment. For quite some time Misia did not admit to herself what was going on. She probably also saw in Roussy a little bit of the daughter she never had. But, of course, what had to come came. At the end of 1927 the Serts were divorced, and in 1928 Sert married Roussy. But it was to be many months before the new couple on the one hand and Misia on the other came to rest apart from each other.
Misia, Diaghilev and »Les Ballets Russes«
What Diaghilev lacked in financial resources, he made up for in eloquence and an unerring eye for talent. Misia was immediately enthusiastic and supported him generously.
Everyone involved was eagerly anticipating the ballet company’s first performance on May 19, 1909. Naturally, they hoped for a full house, enthusiastic audiences, and good reviews. However, no one was prepared for what could only be described as an overwhelming success. Countless curtains were needed to contain the applause. Paris lay at the feet of its new idols. Michel Fokine, Tamara Karsawina, Anna Pavlova and especially Vaclav Nijinsky were celebrated like pop stars.
The following programs were also to become unforgettable. Les Ballets Russes became world famous virtually overnight. In their wake, a new social group was formed: the Friends of the Ballets Russes. Misia was their focal point and their salon became the unofficial headquarters. Enthusiastic supporters went in and out of there, along with the dancers, choreographers, musicians and composers.
In the years that followed, Parisian audiences were treated to an abundance of exotic, dazzling, and novel ballets. The technical skills of the dancers and the new ballet compositions by Stravinsky, Debussy and others were something so attractive that the audience was captivated for an astonishingly long time. Misia had finally been able to convince Diaghilev to ask French composers for ballet music as well. Diaghilev himself originally did not want to see or hear anything on stage that was not of Russian origin.
Misia often represented a calming pole in the usually seething interaction of Russian artists. Especially between Stravinsky and Diaghilev, she intervened several times as a mediator and thus probably also played no small part in the creation of many a masterpiece. And Misia was an important interlocutor for Diaghilev, often, however, not entirely selflessly, when she tried to get one of her protégés into the circle of the Ballets Russes. She succeeded most impressively with the ballet “Parade”. Satie, Cocteau and Picasso were thus able to climb the Russian Olympus. Of course, this was not to Diaghilev’s disadvantage, because “Parade” wrote ballet history.
What did not come out directly were the financial difficulties Diaghilev still had. The productions were spectacular, many dancers, musicians, stage designers, etc. had to be paid. Misia kept stepping in. After her divorce from Edwards, she still received a rather generous appanage from him. She feared, however, that this would disappear if she were to marry again.
Fortunately, her third husband was now also wealthy, and so Misia could continue to have parties, balls, and unforgettable, spontaneous parties on the Seine (jazz had arrived in Paris).
The years flew by – meanwhile Misia and Diaghilev, both born in the same month, were approaching sixty. Misia was suffering through Sert’s infidelities and Diaghilev was showing clear signs of wear and tear. He continued to surround himself with far too many young men, suffered from diabetes, and suspected that his life was coming to an end.
One last time he discovered a talent of the century: the young Georges Balanchine. Misia also immediately recognized his unusual talents and brought the young dancer and later excellent choreographer into contact with Stravinsky – one of the most fruitful phases in the history of ballet began.
Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes have left a heavy legacy, supported for twenty years by Misia’s enthusiasm and financial skill.
»Ich achte die Kunst nicht, ich liebe sie.« Das war ihr selbstgewählter und bei Gesprächen häufig eingeworfener Wahlspruch.
Misia wird noch über zwanzig weitere Jahre leben. Diese Zeit verbringt sie mit zunächst unermüdlichen Versuchen, etwas Sinnvolles oder Erfüllendes im Sinne ihres Lebensmottos zu tun.
1933 gibt sie gemeinsam mit der aufstrebenden jungen Pianistin Marcelle Meyer, die sie unterstützen möchte, ein bejubeltes Konzert. Werke neuer, junger Komponisten und Komponistinnen werden dabei gespielt, die längst ins Rampenlicht getreten sind. Zu ihnen gehört auch die Groupe des Six, deren Mitglieder Auric, Milhaud und vor allem Poulenc Misia unter ihre Fittiche nimmt.
Nach Roussys frühem Tod hat sie wieder mehr Kontakt zu Sert; auch ihre Nichte Mimi, die Tochter ihres mittlerweile verstorbenen Bruders Cipa, wird oft mit ihr gesehen. Jedoch sterben auch Mimi und Sert im Laufe der 40er-Jahre, Misia vereinsamt mehr und mehr.
Nun empfand sie sich nur mehr als Bindeglied zu einer besseren, vergangenen Zeit. Ihre Rolle als Gastgeberin und Mäzenin hatten unterdessen andere übernommen, aber nicht eine oder einer von ihnen so glanzvoll und empathisch, wie einst Misia selbst.
Bald lässt sie auch ihr Körper im Stich; erst muss sie sich einer Augenoperation unterziehen, dann überwältigt sie ein Herzanfall. Bei Kriegsbeginn ist Misia, einst strahlend und lebhaft, nur noch ein Schatten ihrer selbst; und nach Kriegsende ist ihre Abhängigkeit vom Heroin unübersehbar.
In Serts jungem Sekretär Boulos Ristelhuber findet sie einen letzten einfühlsamen Zuhörer und Gesprächspartner. Er wird es auch sein, der ihr beim Schreiben ihrer Memoiren hilft.
1950 stirbt Misia in Paris im Alter von 78 Jahren.
Was bleibt, ist die große Anzahl an Bildern, die Vallotton, Bonnard, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec und vor allem Vuillard von ihr gemalt haben. Letzterer war wohl sein Leben lang unglücklich in Misia verliebt und hat eines der letzten Porträts von ihr in ihrer eher bescheidenen Wohnung in der Nähe des Invalidendomes angefertigt. Das Musée d’Orsay in Paris zeigte im Jahre 2012 unter dem Titel »Misia – Reine de Paris«  eine großartige und sehr erfolgreiche Ausstellung mit all diesen Gemälden.
Cocteau und Savoir verarbeiteten Misias Leben in Theaterstücken; Ravel widmete ihr »La Valse« aus Dankbarkeit für ihre Unterstützung in der Zusammenarbeit mit Diaghilev.
Auch Poulencs Ballett »Les Biches« ist Misia gewidmet. Ihr ist außerdem das in zarten Pastelltönen gehaltene Bühnenbild zum Ballett zu verdanken, denn dafür konnte sie die Malerin und Lyrikerin Marie Laurencin gewinnen. Die leichtfüßige Choreographie zu Poulencs wohl bekanntestem Werk stammt von Bronislava Nijinska – Misia hat alle Strippen gezogen.
Marcel Proust, das Wunderkind der literarischen Welt, der die Pariser Salons in seinem Jahrhundertroman »Auf der Suche nach der verlorenen Zeit« erschreckend genau unter die Lupe nimmt, lässt Misia gar in zwei seiner Protagonistinnen aufleben.
Und natürlich bleibt die Erinnerung an dieses Leben voller Lebenslust, Liebe zur Kunst und nicht nachlassender Suche nach Schönheit.
Footnotes and used literature
2 … Sister of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
3 … Wife of Robert Schumann
4 … Daughter of Orazio Gentileschi
5 … Wife of Rainer Maria Rilke
6 … An example that will be better understood at the end of reading the text: Coco Chanel slipped Diaghilev a large check when she heard that he needed money for the production of “Le Sacre du printemps”. She asked him not to tell anyone about it. This was Coco Chanel’s first step out of Misia’s oversized shadow of the first years of their friendship.
7 … From this, by the way, Picasso took his inspiration for the painting “Bathing Women,” in which he depicted the figure-hugging bathing suits from the Chanel line.
8 … For himself, however, nothing counted more than the frescoes for the cathedral in Vich. This composition accompanied him almost all his life.
9 … More can be found in the text https://www.blog.der-leiermann.com/les-ballets-russes/ and in the book “My French cultural stories”.
10 … Misia – Queen of Paris
Arnaud, Claude et al: Misia – Reine de Paris – exhibition catalog, Paris 2012.
Gold, Arthur and Fizdale, Robert: Misia – Muse, Mäzenin, Model, Berlin 1991
Rehn-Wolfmann, Ursula: Muse and Patron to Poets, Painters and Musicians, online 2016