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Picasso, Diaghilev Courted Generous Parisian Beauty: Review

"Europe or Autumn" (1917-19) by Jose Maria Sert. The painting is on view at the Petit Palais through Aug. 5. Source: Petit Palais, Paris via Bloomberg

June 25 (Bloomberg) -- Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Bonnard, Vuillard portrayed her, Ravel dedicated his choreographic poem “La Valse” to her, and Mallarme, a leader of the Symbolist movement, glorified her on an autographed fan.

“Misia, Reine de Paris,” an exhibition at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, celebrates Misia Sert (1872-1950), the darling of countless painters, composers and writers.

Her turbulent love life even inspired a play, Cocteau’s “Les Monstres Sacres.”

The Catalan painter Jose Maria Sert, under whose name she is remembered today, was her third husband.

Marie Sophie Godebska, born in St. Petersburg, came to France at a young age. Her first husband, Thadee Natanson, directed “La Revue Blanche,”mouthpiece of France’s literary and artistic avant-garde.

When the periodical folded, the ruined Natanson pushed her into the arms of the press baron Alfred Edwards. The fortune of her second husband enabled her to do what she liked best -- take budding artists under her wing.

Fortunately, Sert, too, was a rich man. So the good life, with sumptuous parties and adoring proteges, continued.

Fairy Witch

Misia was no saint. Valentine Gross Hugo, who also painted her portrait, described her as “a fairy godmother one moment and a witch the next, frightfully malicious, adorably generous, out to destroy everything in the arts that hadn’t been hatched or at least nurtured within her own four walls.”

Serge Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, was her most important protege.

The exhibition includes replicas of the grotesque costumes Picasso designed for Erik Satie’s ballet “Parade.” The 1917 premiere was one of the noisy scandals the Ballets Russes provoked.

To an outraged critic, Satie sent a postcard calling him “an asshole and an unmusical one at that.” The addressee went to court, and Satie was sentenced to a week in prison.

The postcard, sadly, isn’t in the show. Instead, there are letters and portraits featuring Misia’s vast circle of friends, including Proust, Stravinsky and Cocteau.

The costumes designed by Coco Chanel evoke the friendship between the two women. After her divorce from Sert, in 1927, Misia toyed with the idea of becoming a fashion designer.

Spouse’s Pomp

It so happens that the Petit Palais in Paris is devoting an exhibition to Misia’s third husband.

Jose Maria Sert (1874-1945) wasn’t taken seriously by his painting contemporaries, and he responded in kind. Cubism, Surrealism and the other modernisms of the day left him cold.

His model was Tiepolo and the splendors of 18th-century Venice. He found plenty of wealthy customers who shared his traditional taste -- the queen of Spain, the Vatican and Nelson Rockefeller, among others.

In the 1930s, Sert worked in New York, decorating the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the lobby of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center.

The Petit Palais presents his wall decorations, including some large canvases, in a way the great showman would have appreciated -- with Baroque pomp.

“Misia, Reine de Paris” runs through Sept. 9. The show will travel to the Musee Bonnard in Le Cannet, France, (Oct. 13-Jan. 6, 2013). Information: “Jose Maria Sert: Titan at Work” is at the Petit Palais through Aug. 5. Information:

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Hephzibah Anderson on books and John Mariani on wine.

To contact the writer on the story: Jorg von Uthmann, in Paris, at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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