Misia Godebska (1872-1950)

Exhibition: Misia, Reine de Paris
At: Musee d’Orsay
Runs: 12th June – 9th September 2012

The poet Mallarmé called her “ma rayonnante” and Proust, “ma sybilline”. She was a friend of Colette, Picasso, Cocteau, Coco Chanel, and was painted by almost all the notable French artists of her time. She was a perfect muse, and posed for Bonnard, Vuillard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir among others.

An exhibition currently at the Musee d’Orsay is dedicated to this legendry figure in French art from the Belle Epoque through to les annees folles.

But who was Misia Godebska, the woman who inspired some of the greatest works of the 20th century, yet never created anything herself? Who was this woman, to whom Ravel dedicated Le Cygne (The Swan) in 1906 and La Valse in 1920? Even her name is elusive, for having been married three times, she was known as Misia Natandon, Misia Edwards and Misia Sert.

She was born in Russia, brought up in Belgium and finally settled in Paris. Growing up in a family of musicians, she learned the piano from an early age, studying under the composer Gabriel Faure.

It was for her talent as a pianist that she first became known, giving her first public recital in 1892. However, she refused to make a career of music, preferring to play only for her friends and for her own pleasure.

There are many portraits that portray her before the piano, surrounded by friends, in her apartment on rue Saint-Florentin.

When she married Thadee Natanson (founder of La Revue Blanche) she naturally came into contact with some of the great writers and artists of the day.

La Revue Blanche was a cultural and artistic magazine full of progressive ideas in terms of art and politics. Collaborators included Vuillard, Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec. Misia did not directly participate in writing or editing of the magazine, but played hostess to all the collaborators, who would meet at Natanson’s country house to discuss, plan and write.

There are many photographs and paintings at the exhibition in which you can see that Misia was always present at these meetings.

Misia was hailed for her beauty, her love of parties and her musical talents. She was a regular hostess to the royalty of the art world in her apartment. Diaghiliev and Stravinski were regular visitors, and Misia introduced the latter to Gabrielle Chanel during a trip to Venice.

However, by the end of the 20s, her third husband had left her. Misia was consumed by grief and began to take refuge in morphine. Her parties became increasingly rare and spent most of her time alone in her apartment.

Her friends and artists began to forget her, and, after the Second World War, visitors become very scarce. Chanel was one of her most faithful friends and it was she who eventually dressed her friend for her funeral after she died on October 15 1950, doing her make-up and putting a dress with a pink belt on her.

Misia is buried in a little cemetery in Samoreau, in Seine et Marne, not far from her friend Mallarmé.

The exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay brings together portraits of Misia and her entourage as well as other works, documents and accounts of artists that illustrate the incredible amount creative work that went on around Misia.

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