Sert, Misia (1872–1950)

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Sert, Misia (1872–1950)

Russian-born pianist and patron of the arts during the Belle Époque. Name variations: Misia Godebska Sert. Born Marie Sophie Olga Zenaide Godebska on March 30, 1872, in St. Petersburg, Russia; died on October 15, 1950; daughter of Cyprien Quentin Godebski (a Polish sculptor) and Eugénie Sophie Léopoldine Servais Godebska (a Frenchwoman); married Thadée Natanson, on April 25, 1893; married Alfred Edwards, on February 24, 1905 (divorced 1909); married José-María Sert (a Spanish painter), on September 2, 1920 (divorced December 28, 1927).

Misia Sert was born on March 30, 1872, in St. Petersburg, Russia, a birth that resulted in the death of her French mother Eugénie Sophie Léopoldine Servais . Misia's father, Polish sculptor Cyprien Quentin Godebski, was too preoccupied with his own affairs, both artistic and amorous, to provide attention or guidance for the child. Misia consequently spent most of her early years with her mother's family, but also with her father in Russia. At a tender age, she showed great musical ability and for years intended to become a concert pianist. Spoiled, independent, artistic, and temperamental, she spent eight years at convent school in Paris, from 1882 to 1890. Then she ran away to London and later back to Paris, supporting herself by teaching piano lessons. Misia gave her first public concert in 1892.

On April 25, 1893, she married Thadée Natanson, son of a wealthy banking family. They moved in European artistic and intellectual circles, and he founded La Revue Blanche, which became one of the main journals of Belle Époque culture. Misia befriended and patronized many of the great artists and writers of the time. Beautiful and vivacious, she modeled for Auguste Renoir, Henri Toulouse-Latrec, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, and appears in a number of their paintings. Stéphane Mallarmé wrote poetry for her.

After separating from Natanson, she first became the mistress of Alfred Edwards, an extremely wealthy investor and newspaper baron, and then wed him on February 24, 1905. He showered money on her, and Misia became one of the chief patrons of the arts in Western Europe. Edwards later left her for an actress, Genevieve Lantelme , and Misia divorced him on February 24, 1909.

The settlement with Edwards left her well off, but Misia was lonely and less independent than her unbridled life would suggest. She entered a liaison with Spanish painter José-María Sert. When Edwards died unexpectedly on March 10, 1914, his will left Misia nothing. Nonetheless her life was full. Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, composers Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussey, and writer Marcel Proust were part of her circle. Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was her friend and sometimes rival. Misia married José-María Sert on September 2, 1920. His career flourished, with commissions flowing in from across Europe and the Americas. Driven by his powerful sensuality, he threw over Misia for a young Russian, Roussada Mdivani . They divorced on December 28, 1927.

When Mdivani died in the late 1930s, José-María returned to Misia. She suffered a heart attack in 1939, her eyesight began to fail, and she endured the German occupation of France. José-María left his Paris apartment and its antiques to her when he died in 1945. Misia Sert lived until October 15, 1950, her health failing and her many years as one of Paris' cultural elite a memory.


Gold, Arthur, and Robert Fizdale. Misia: The Life of Misia Sert. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

Sert, Misia Godebska. Misia and the Muses: The Memoirs of Misia Sert. NY: J. Day, 1953.

Kendall W. Brown , Professor of History, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah