This is a portrait of Misia Sert, née Godebska, who was the darling of the highest artistic circles in France at the turn of the twentieth century. It is hard to overstate quite how glamorous and influential she was: the local newspapers dubbed her the 'Queen of Paris’. A talented pianist, she associated with nearly all the most famous artists, writers and musicians in the city and sat for portraits by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. Renoir painted her portrait seven or eight times, each of which required three day-long sittings per week for a month. This is one of the best known. It is dated 1904, the year she turned 32 and divorced her first husband. Renoir has captured her shimmering glamour and poise but also perhaps something of her emotional turmoil – she seems to be looking directly at the viewer yet not quite focusing on us.
The sitter in this portrait is Misia Sert, née Godebska, who was the darling of the highest artistic circles in France at the turn of the twentieth century. It is hard to overstate quite how glamorous and influential a figure she was. At a time when the city was the art capital of the world, the local newspapers dubbed her the ‘Queen of Paris’.
The granddaughter of a famous Belgian cellist and daughter of a Polish sculptor, Misia (a diminutive of Maria) was an accomplished pianist in her own right and was always surrounded by creative people. The composer and pianist Franz Liszt was a friend of the family and as a teenager she took piano lessons from Gabriel Fauré, also an extremely influential composer. She decided against a professional career, but often played at private soirees, once accompanying Enrico Caruso, the most famous singer of the day.
In 1893, aged 21, Misia married Thadée Natanson, who was from a wealthy banking family and was a director of the influential literary and artistic review, the Revue blanche. The couple moved from Belgium to Paris, where Misia’s charm and beauty intrigued some of the greatest artists, writers and musicians in the city. She sat for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (who portrayed her playing the piano), Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard as well as Renoir. The novelist Marcel Proust used her as a prototype for two characters in Á la recherche du temps perdu (‘In Search of Lost Time’) and the poet Mallarmé wrote poems in her honour. Maurice Ravel composed at least two pieces for her, including Le Cygne (‘The Swan’), and it was to her that Éric Satie dedicated the piano music for the avant-garde ballet Parade. She was instrumental in persuading Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, to stage the production, which was written by Jean Cocteau, with Picasso designing the set.
According to Misia’s memoirs, Renoir painted her portrait seven or eight times, each of which required three day-long sittings per week for a month. This is one of the best known. It is dated 1904, when she turned 32 – this was also the year in which she divorced her first husband. She married the wealthy Anglo-French newspaper baron Alfred Edwards the following year.
Renoir has captured the shimmering glamour and poise of Misia as she leans against the bolster of her chaise longue, the society hostess at home and at ease. However, there is a strange tension in her posture. The lower half of her body seems sinuous and relaxed, and she cradles the head of her sleeping dog affectionately against her thigh. But there is also an awkwardness to the pose. It is not clear how her legs are supported – they seem too far forward from the front edge of the chaise longue. The upper half of her body leans slightly stiffly to one side, although she holds her head upright and alert. Her gaze is also hard to interpret – she seems to be looking directly at the viewer yet not quite focusing. Perhaps Renoir had captured something of her emotional uncertainty in the face of her divorce.
Her marriage to Edwards failed and in 1920, after an 11-year affair, she married the Spanish painter José-Maria Sert. Coco Chanel, the fashion designer, was one of her closest friends and joined them on their honeymoon in Venice. When Misia died in 1950, the portrait was still in her possession.
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