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Marcel Proust - In Search of Lost Time

Thoughts on Proust....

Misia Sert, A Muse

By: Fereshteh Priou

October 2017

Misia Sert was an astonishingly beautiful woman born in 1872. She was raised in St. Petersburg, Russia at the Russian Imperial Residence where her polish sculptor father was working on a project in 1872. She lost her mother, who was from a distinguished Belgian musical family, at childbirth and was sent to Brussels to live with her grandparents. She was a musical prodigy who learned to play piano as a child sitting on Franz Liszt knees and was a student of Fauré. 

She eventually came to Paris as a piano teacher, but found her way into the Belle Époque Paris society through marriage. She was married three times, first to Thadeé Natanson, a Polish emigrant and radical socialist who was the founder of La Revue Blanche, then to Alfred Edwards, the founder of Le Matin. The rumor has it that Edwards fell in love with her while she was married to Natanson and managed to win her through some financial agreement between the two men.  

Her third and last husband was the Spanish painter and muralist, Jose-Maria Sert who introduced her to morphine and was responsible for her sexual awakening. The marriage was a tumultuous one full of infidelity and betrayals and frequenting the society was her way of ignoring her marital issues. Her salon was coveted by the most distinguished personalities of the period, but she selected her guests scrupulously. Many great artists such as Renoir, Lautrec and Vuillard painted her portraits and she influenced musicians such as Satie, Stravinsky and Serge Diaghilev, the founder of Ballets Russes. She was a close friend of Coco Chanel with rumors that they were lovers. She was also loved and respected by many authors, among them, Gide, Mallarmé, Cocteau and Proust.

The artists benefited from her patronage and she was known to help them financially when times were hard. They adored her and most considered her beauty irresistible. Monet, who was an old and arthritic man at that time, asked her to bare her bosom for him to paint which she refused. Vuillard who painted many of her portraits and gave them fanciful names such as Nape, was known to be vastly amorous of her. He once fell into tears at the sight of her beauty when painting her. She later said that Vuillard’s cry was the most beautiful declaration of love she had ever experienced. Picasso was a close friend and she was the godmother to his first son, but theirs was not an amicable relationship. Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson describes her as manipulative, meddling and a liar.

One of her more ardent admirers was Marcel Proust who modeled one of his famous characters, Mme. Verdurin, after her. Just like Mme. Verdurin, Misia surrounded herself with the illuminati. The more sought after her salons became, the haughtier she got. One had to be gifted to get access to her receptions. At the opera one evening, she scanned the audience from her box through her lorgnette and not seeing anyone she knew, she declared, “There is no one here!” which shows that she was more Mme. Verdurin than the original Mme. Verdurin.

Misia Sert died in 1950 and was buried in a pink dress designed by her friend, Coco Chanel. She was the subject of a show at Musee D’Orsay in Paris, called “Misia, Queen of Paris”.

Article by: Fereshteh Priou - October 2017