In addition to the Degas exhibit, the musée d’Orsay also has Misia, Reine de Paris. This one just opened and will be available until September 9, 2012. Misia sounds like the kind of person who would make a party a whole lot more memorable, but you wouldn’t really want to be her. The Queen of Paris wasn’t French; she was born Marie Sophie Olga Zénaïde Godebska in St. Petersburg, Russia. That rather complicated series of names was shortened to a more manageable and memorable Misia. Her father was a Polish sculptor and her mother, the daughter of a Belgian cello virtuoso, died in childbirth.
Heredity was kind to her and Misia was a highly gifted pianist. She was apparently so good that she could have turned professional, but she preferred to play for her own enjoyment and that of her friends. She married a distant cousin at age 21, Thadée Natanson, who was the founder of La Revue Blanche, a journal by and for intellectuals, which brought his wife into contact with all the best writers and most innovative artists of Belle Époque France. Half of them painted her, Maurice Ravel dedicated Le Cygne to her, and all of them were in love with her.
She divorced Natanson in order to marry Alfred Edwards, a very wealthy businessman, who also owned a newspaper and had a financial interest in the Théatre de Paris and the Casino de Paris (this isn’t a casino at all, but rather a nightclub for major artists to this day). The breakup with Natanson was so spectacular that it inspired a play. Her second marriage was short-lived. Misia lost Edwards to another woman, who later “died mysteriously.” She had a border painted in her bedroom that showed the two women fighting over a string of pearls.
Shortly after their divorce, Misia met her third husband Catalan painter José Maria Sert. He introduced her to the luminaries of the avant-garde such as Serge de Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau, and Stravinski. She became an important financial supporter of les Ballets Russes. Along with her close friend Coco Chanel, she was a major tastemaker of the Paris scene. Her relationship with Sert was complicated; he moved his mistress into their home where all three lived together, but not happily. They divorced. Misia’s vision declined to the point that she was almost blind and she became addicted to morphine. When she died in Paris on October 15, 1950, her friend Chanel made her final outfit.
Today’s expression is a Misia quotation, “De la musique avant toute chose” (duh lah muzeek avahn toot shows), which means “Music before everything.” Misia, first the muse of artists and then a significant patron, retained her interest in the piano her whole life. It certainly helped provide a much needed outlet for all the emotional turmoil of her love life.