French artist, Suzanne Valadon, was an artist's model before becoming a respected painter herself. Part of a circle of artists living and working in Paris' Montmartre neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, Valadon was one of the most famous female artists of that period -- noted for her robust figures and bold use of color and line. She is the featured artist for April, in my Woman Artist Series.
Valadon is also remembered for her many love affairs and as the mother of prominent French painter, Maurice Utrillo.
SUZANNE VALADON (1865-1938)
Here are 10 things to know about Suzanne Valadon, along with some of her paintings and images of Valadon herself:
1. Suzanne Valadon was born in 1865, in the small town of Bessines, in northeastern France -- the illegitimate daughter of Madeleine Valadon, a poor French laundress. She grew up in poverty with her mother and did not know her father. Her birth name was Marie Clementine Valadon. She moved with her mother to Montmartre in 1870, at the age of five.
She grew up in Montmartre, the bohemian quarter of Paris, and from the age of 10, she supported herself by doing odd jobs. After a short attendance at a convent school, she worked in a variety of areas, including a milliner's workshop, a factory making funeral wreaths, a market selling vegetables, a waitress in a restaurant, as a nanny, and then finally in the circus.
When Valadon was a teenager, she befriended some artists living in the Montmartre neighborhood, a bustling artist's community. These artists helped Valadon get a job as an acrobat at the Mollier circus, at the age of fifteen. Here, artist Berthe Morisot painted the young Valadon as a tightrope walker.
In March of 1880, Valadon fell from a trapeze while practicing her act and injured her back, which ended that career and led her in a new direction. Her brief stint with the circus remained one of her fondest memories.
2. Looking for a safer occupation, Valadon became an artist's model in Montmartre, at the age of 15. She modeled for over 13 years for several of the most important painters of the day, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. It is said that she was a strikingly beautiful woman, and so, was in great demand as a model.
|Girl Braiding her Hair, Portrait of Suzanne Valadon, by August Renoir|
Valadon began her career as an artist's model, after she caught the eye of painter, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, in 1880. For the next seven years, Valadon posed for several of Puvis' paintings and was presumed to have been sexually involved with him. At that time, the career of a model was a somewhat scandalous one.
She modeled under the name "Maria" and was thought to have had many affairs with the artists she modeled for. She was considered seductive, provocative, comely, voluptuous, and flighty as a model. Toulouse-Lautrec nicknamed her "Suzanne" after the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders.
She served as the subject of many of Renoir's paintings, including The Bathers and Girl Braiding her Hair. She was also the subject of Toulouse-Latrec's 1889 The Hangover, and other portraits.
|portrait of Suzanne Valadon, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec|
|portrait of Suzanne Valadon, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec|
3. Valadon led a carefree, bohemian life as a young woman in the 1880's and 90's, frequenting the seedy clubs and cabarets of the Montmartre quarter of Paris. She became a regular at the famed tavern Lapin-Agile, as well as the early cabaret, Le Chat Noir -- mingling with the artistic community. During this time in her life, Valadon made a name for herself as a feisty, vivacious girl, known for stunts such as sliding down the banister at a popular club, wearing only a mask.
|The Hangover, by Henri Toulouse Latrec|
Very focused, independent, and passionate, Valadon also had a complicated personal life. In 1883, she gave birth to an illegitimate son, at the age of 18 -- the future artist Maurice Utrillo. Valadon's mother cared for Maurice while Suzanne returned to modeling.
|Suzanne Valadon with her son, Maurice Utrillo|
Posing regularly for Renoir, she became his lover, as well as the lover of numerous others -- including Erik Satie and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. She was also known to be good friends with Edgar Degas.
4. Valadon soon took an interest in drawing and painting and discovered her own talent. Toulouse-Lautrec was the first to see her drawings and to encourage her. One of Valadon's first-known works is a pastel called Self Portrait.
|Self Portrait, 1883, pastel by Suzanne Valadon|
Although she could not afford formal art classes, Valadon learned readily from the painters around her. Valadon helped to educate herself in art by reading Toulouse-Lautrec's books and observing the artists at work, for whom she posed. She began creating her own paintings, using these artists' techniques. Though it is generally thought that she was self-taught, it is quite likely that Valadon received informal training from one or more of her many artist friends. She produced mostly drawings from 1883-1893.
Eventually Valadon's own art won the admiration and support of Degas, with whom she shared a close friendship. Impressed with her bold line drawings and fine paintings, Degas purchased her work and encouraged her efforts, becoming her mentor. When Degas first discovered her drawings, he cried out with enthusiasm: "My girl, it's done! You are one of us!" He bought three of her paintings in 1893. She remained one of Degas' closest friends until his death.
Valadon soon transitioned from an artist's model into a successful artist. Taking her son or her concierge's daughter as models, she produced some very beautiful drawings and paintings. Suzanne threw herself into the world of the arts with frenzy.
5. Suzanne Valadon did not commit to any particular style of movement, but chose an independent path based on several different styles -- though she was well aware of current avant-garde artistic trends from her social circles at Montmartre. All of Valadon's early works were pastel and pencil drawings. In the early 1890's, she commenced working in oils, producing her first paintings.
One of these first oils, dating from 1893, was of composer Erik Satie. Valadon and Satie had an intense, though short-lived, romantic involvement. Satie proposed to Valadon, but she turned him down.
|Portrait of Erik Satie, 1893, oil painting by Suzanne Valadon|
She painted still lifes, portraits, flowers, and landscapes -- all noted for their strong composition and vibrant and powerful colors, reminiscent of the Post-Impressionist and Fauve styles.
But, her most famous subjects are her nudes -- both female and male. Suzanne painted her female nudes as members of the working class. They were candid, assertive and unashamedly naked. It was unusual in the 19th century for a woman artist to make nudes her primary subject matter.
|Casting of the Net, 1914, by Suzanne Valadon|
Many critics interpreted the lack of idealization in Valadon's nudes as ugliness and lack of charm, as well as stereotyping her for her own background in the work class and her un-feminine bravado and feistiness. The coarse form, bright color, and loose brushstrokes of her artwork were considered a very masculine style, and critics of that time just didn't know how to categorize her.
Valadon primarily worked with oil paint, oil pencils, pastels, and red chalk. She did not use ink or watercolor because these media were too fluid for her preference. Valadon's rich bold paintings often featured firm black lines to define and outline her shapes. She used hard black lines to emphasize the structure of the body and to emphasize the play of light on curves.
Her later works, such as Blue Room, are brighter in color and show a new emphasis on decorative backgrounds and patterns.
|Blue Room, oil by Suzanne Valadon|
6. Valadon held her first exhibitions in the 1890's. These consisted mostly of her portraits.
In 1894, Valadon became the first woman painter admitted to the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts -- this recognition was a major French artistic accomplishment.
|Self Portrait, oil by Suzanne Valadon|
Two of her engravings appeared at a large London show put on by the International Society of Painters and Engravers in 1898, probably due to the influence of Degas. By 1909, she was able to fully support herself and her family with her artwork. Despite these advances in her career, Valadon was beginning to be overshadowed by her artist son and his contemporaries, including Pablo Picasso.
Her first one-person show in 1915 was a critical and commercial success and garnered her many new patrons. Her later exhibits were also successful.
She rose to the peak of her fame in the 1920's and had four major retrospective exhibitions during her lifetime. She was elected to the Salon d'Automne in 1920. That December, Valadon exhibited alone at a Paris gallery to good critical reception. For the remainder of her career, Valadon would show frequently to critical acclaim and became internationally known.
7. Valadon's personal life attracted as much attention as did her art. She had well-known affairs with the painter Puvis de Chavannes, the composer Erik Satie, the painter Renoir, and the banker Paul Moussis, with whom she lived for 14 years. At that stage in her life, her love affairs seemed to pass over her like sunshine. Valadon herself seemed uncertain as to who the father of her child was.
|Self Portrait, 1918, by Suzanne Valadon|
Her freewheeling personal life and refusal to be constrained by conventional wisdom, fired her art. Being a free spirit, she kept a goat in her studio, which she claimed to feed her bad drawings to, and she fed her cats caviar on Sundays. She was also said to wear corsages made of carrots.
|Two Cats, 1918, oil by Suzanne Valadon|
8. After 14 years together, Valadon attempted respectability by marrying Montmartre stockbroker Paul Moussis. Her affair with Erik Satie had ended, Valadon's involvement with Moussis intensified, and the pair married in 1896. This marriage provided Valadon with financial stability, enabling her to quit modeling and dedicate herself to drawing and painting full-time. They led a bourgeois life for 13 years, in an apartment in Paris and a house in the outlying region.
In 1909, she began a passionate love affair with Andre Utter, an artist 21 years her junior. Three years earlier, Valadon met Utter, a friend of her son. As their relationship intensified, she at first tried to hide it from her husband. However, she became careless, Moussis found out, and they were divorced soon after.
|Self Portrait, by Suzanne Valadon|
Prodded by Utter, Valadon returned more seriously to her art, producing a significant number of paintings for the first time in years. Valadon and Utter had several joint art exhibitions, and he also posed for a number of Valadon's works. Adam and Eve (1909) was modeled on Valadon herself and her young lover, and was the first piece by a female artist to show a nude man and woman together.
|Adam and Eve, oil by Suzanne Valadon|
Utter became the love of her life and she returned to a precarious bohemian existence. Over the next few years, Valadon, her lover, and her son lived together in the Montmartre, on the proceeds of their artwork. When WWI broke out in 1914, Utter volunteered for military service. He and Valadon married so that she could receive an allowance from the military as a soldier's wife. Suzanne was nearly 50 when she married Utter.
|Family Portrait by Suzanne Valadon (Andre Utter, Valadon, her son Maurice Utrillo, and her mother)|
In 1917, Utter received a bullet wound and Valadon traveled to the country to be closer to him. She remained outside of Paris for some time, painting landscapes. After the war ended in 1918, they both returned to the city. Utter marketed his works, as well as those of Valadon and her son, Maurice Utrillo. The couple divorced in 1934 -- she was 69 and he was 48.
9. Valadon's son, Maurice Utrillo, became a renowned painter in his own right. She was only 18 when Maurice was born. Valadon herself seemed uncertain as to who the father of her child was, or was at least unwilling to divulge his identity. Her close family friend, Spaniard Miguel Utrillo, formally acknowledged the boy as his own in 1891. But, several other possible fathers have been suggested, including Puvis, Renoir, and another young Paris artist named Boissy. Miguel Utrillo asked for French nationality for Miguel, and then disappeared from their lives.
Even though Valadon was a well received and successful artist in her own right, she eventually lived in the shadow of her talented son Maurice, one of the most successful painters of his time.
|Portrait of Maurice Utrillo, by Suzanne Valadon|
Maurice began to develop a problem with alcohol. Valadon turned her attention to her son's well being, neglecting her own artistic career. In the early 1900's, Valadon began encouraging Maurice to paint as a means of therapy, and became his primary teacher.
Despite her struggles to keep her son -- the alcoholic Utrillo -- out of jail and the mental hospital, Suzanne Valadon produced some of her most powerful paintings during that tempestuous and passionate time of her life.
In 1915, Valadon's mother died at the age of 84. Maurice was called up and subsequently rejected for military service, and was again committed to a mental institution for the treatment of alcoholism. But, her son's artworks consistently overshadowed those of his mother, commercially.
10. Valadon spent nearly 40 years of her life as an artist -- producing around 300 drawings and over 450 oil paintings by the end of her life. Valadon aged well and stayed at her easel and in public life, even when her paintings had lost their clientele.
Valadon continued to produce works at her country estate, Sain Bernard, showing at major retrospectives in 1929 and 1932. Many works from this period depict her beloved pets.
Suzanne Valadon died of a stroke while painting at her easel on April 7, 1938, at the age of 72, and was buried in the Saint Ouen Cemetery in Paris. Among those in attendance at her funeral were her friends and colleagues from the Parisian art community -- including Pablo Picasso, George Braque, and Andre Derain.
Today, some of her works may be seen at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Grenoble, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.