If you think about it, we love listening to the stories of women forgotten by time who played a crucial role in the lives of some of the most famous names in history, be it inventors, artists, or thinkers. Is it because of the mysterious allure to the lives of these women or because we’re so eager to prove that, indeed, women have always played an important role in the development of culture and technology? We often dig up in the past of relevant men to unveil the secret stories of the women behind them. Don’t get me wrong, I love these stories, especially when these characters are not only relevant due to their connection to men, but also because their achievements are worth noting. That’s the case of Misia Sert, the ultimate muse of muses. Without her, some of the greatest musicians, artists, and intellectuals would be unknown to us.
Many tend to sum up her life as the woman who appeared in the paintings of artists like Toulouse-Lautrec or Renoir, or the woman who inspired Ravel to compose some of his most important pieces. Moreover, they love saying that Sert was the addressee to many of Mallarmé’s poetry, but she was much more than that. Sert was born within the safety of the secluded walls of Tsarskoye Selo, a palace of the Russian royal family. Her mother died in childbirth, so she was raised by her famous sculptor father, who proved he wasn’t fit or willing to do the task. Being very young, she was sent to her grandparents in Belgium, where she entered a convent boarding school. There she learned how to play the piano –an activity many have claimed she excelled at–, and soon she moved to the center of culture at the time, Paris, where she would share her musical gift.
Being a bourgeoisie young woman, she had the connections needed to succeed in the field. But being a renowned pianist wasn’t really in her plans since she was looking for something thrilling and exciting. Her eagerness led her to become an important member of the intellectual circle of the Parisian Bohemians, where she found her real passion: art. Not only did she befriend very important people, but actually became an inspiration to them and an important piece for their development as the greatest minds of the turn of the century. Despite what many could think (or thought at the time), she didn’t pursue a career in the art world to meet artists, nor did she flirt with these men to succeed. Actually, she was the mastermind behind the promotion of artists and writers.
She got married three times, but love never seemed to be a constant in her life. Her first husband, Thadée Natanson, a Polish socialite, was the owner and founder of La Revue Blanche –one of the main artistic magazines of the time–, so he was crucial in the promotion of new artists. She collaborated directly with each publication, where she made sure her artist friends would be featured. When the marriage ended, she met Albert Edwards, a prominent owner of the main newspapers of Paris. With her own connections and the ones she acquired while being involved in her husband’s business, she soon became one of the main sponsors of culture in Paris.
Her third and last marriage, with the eccentric Spanish muralist Jose-Maria Sert, didn’t last long, and after a few months of marriage, they divorced. However, during this time she started creating her own works of art. Considered by many as low or just ornamental and decorative art, she was famous for her little crystal bonsai trees placed over amethyst stones. Although she didn’t really succeed with this creation, we still owe her the impressive job she did in promoting artists, who wouldn’t have become the masterminds they’re now without her help.
Yes, she was painted by Renoir, Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vuillard. She inspired songs and poetry. She was a very close friend of Picasso, Proust, Verlain, Monet, Cocteau, Stravinsky, and many others. She’s even remembered as Coco Chanel’s best friend (and lover, as some claimed). But more than that, she was a woman with an endless curiosity and spirit, who never gave up pursuing what she wanted. She was neglected from a very early age but learned how to build her own family. These are the stories worth telling, about those who don’t seek glory but still achieve it by doing what they love.
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