James Lucas - November 2022
Suzanne Valadon lived and worked at the absolute epicenter of artistic Paris in its heyday. She was a model and a dear friend to some of the most famous artists of a generation, as well as a groundbreaking artist in her own right. She forged a career in a man’s world, challenged the conventions of the nude, and carved a new critical space in which to consider a woman’s body. Valadon’s portraits are based on real emotions and actual physical experience; they encourage women to look for themselves and to reclaim their own viewpoint. Whilst her technique and observational style have much in common with the French and English Post-Impressionists, her hard hitting and multi-layered thematic edge - a fascinating and central focus on sex and aging - is more akin to that of the German, Austrian, and Scandinavian Expressionists, making Valadon an art historical lynchpin as well as a bright beacon for Feminist Art.
Self Portait, Suzanne Valadon (1898)
Valadon grew up in poverty with her mother, an unmarried laundress in Montmartre. She did not know her father. Known to be quite independent and rebellious, she attended primary school until age eleven when she began working. She had a series of jobs that included working in a milliner's workshop, at a factory making funeral wreaths, selling vegetables, and as a waitress. At the age of 15, she obtained a job in her most desired field: performing in the circus as an acrobat. She was able to work at the circus because of her connection with Count Antoine de La Rochefoucauld and Thèo Wagner, two symbolist painters, who were involved in decorating a circus belonging to Medrano. The circus was visited frequently by artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Berthe Morisot and it is speculated that this was the inspiration for a painting of Valadon by Morisot. A fall from a trapeze ended her circus career after one year. It is commonly believed that Valadon taught herself how to draw at the age of nine. In the Montmartre quarter of Paris, she pursued her interest in art, first working as a model and a muse for artists, observing and learning their techniques, before becoming a noted painter in her own right.
Valadon began working as a model in 1880 in Montmartre at age 15. She modeled for more than ten years for many different artists including Berthe Morisot, Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Théophile Steinlen, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean-Jacques Henner, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. She modeled under the name "Maria" before being nicknamed "Suzanne" by Toulouse-Lautrec, after the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders as he felt that she especially preferred modeling for older artists. She was Toulouse-Lautrec's lover for two years, which ended when she attempted suicide in 1888.
Dance at Bougival, Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Suzanne Valadon - The Model
Valadon strived to become a serious artist, but unlike her contemporaries Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Eva Gonzalès, and Marie Bracquemond she could not afford art lessons. She therefore turned to modeling as a way to get close to and learn from the artists she admired, even though modeling, especially in the nude, was not considered a respectable occupation. She modeled for ten years, starting at age 15. Some of the artists for whom she posed, and was perhaps also a mistress/lover for a time, included Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Renoir loved using Valadon as his model and she appears in several of his well-known paintings including - Dance in The City (1883) and The Bathers (1884-87). In another painting, Dance at Bougival (1883), the woman featured is thought to be an amalgamation of Valadon and Renoir’s wife, and therefore perhaps his ideal woman. Valadon modeled for Renoir from age 17 until she was 22. Soon after giving birth to Maurice, Valadon met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and also became his model, as seen in The Hangover (1889), as well as his lover for a time. Toulouse-Lautrec was the person in her life who persuaded her to change her name from Marie-Clémentine to Suzanne, comically making reference to the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders, since Valadon liked modeling for older artists. He was kind and encouraging to Valadon and so impressed by her drawings that he introduced her to Edgar Degas, another artist who became a close friend, and as her career developed, her most influential artistic mentor.
The Acrobat (the Wheel), Suzanne Valadon
A Working Artist
Some of Valadon’s first-known works on paper are dated 1883, including a commanding and accomplished pastel self-portrait. It is thought that she drew her first female nude around 1892 and that she made mostly pastel and charcoal drawings until the following year, mainly of her son and family. Her first known oil painting is from a similar year, but even after adding the medium of oil paint to her repertoire she continued to prefer drawing because paints were hard to obtain and she had to mix her own. She said, ”I was so wild and proud that I did not want to paint. … I tried to make my palette so simple that I wouldn’t have to think about it.“
As a burgeoning artist, Valadon showed five drawings at the Salon of the National Society of Fine Arts in 1894; she was historically the first woman painter to ever have work admitted. In 1895, she exhibited 12 etchings of women in various stages of their toilette (heavily influenced by Degas) and began to regularly show at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris.
In 1892 Valadon had an intense six-month love affair with the composer Erik Satie while she was also simultaneously seeing a wealthy stockbroker Paul Mousis. Eventually the relationship with Satie ended as Valadon refused to commit to him or to end the relationship with Mousis.
In 1896 Valadon married Mousis and moved her family – including her mother and son - to his house in Montagny, north of Paris. Mousis also continued to rent a small apartment and studio in Montmartre for Valadon so that she could often return to the city. Finally, no longer having to work for a living, Valadon could paint full time. She and Mousis were married for 13 years, during which time she lived a comfortable bourgeois life. Her drawings and etchings started to sell at the gallery Le Barc de Boutteville, and the art dealer, Ambroise Vollard started to publish her prints. She primarily continued to draw and paint women engaged in everyday activities such as bathing. Although these scenes were relatively common as depicted by Valadon’s male contemporaries, it remained unusual and even shocking for a female artist to paint nudes, especially as these images of women were generally truthful rather than idealized representations.
Now a young man, Maurice suffered from depression, wild rages, and alcoholism. A doctor suggested that painting might be good therapy for Maurice so Valadon started to devote time to this and give him lessons. Initially reluctant, Maurice quite quickly began to show real talent. Despite a new focus, Maurice remained a turbulent personality and from 1904 (around age 20) he committed a series of violent episodes and as such was often arrested. In many ways, this was a difficult phase in Valadon’s life. In 1901 she learned of the premature death of her friend, Toulouse-Lautrec, at the age of 37. She encouraged her son to focus on painting and gradually Maurice grew to enjoy his mother’s tutelage and became very accomplished. In 1909 Maurice met and befriended another young artist called André Utter. Utter was then 23 years old and thus three years younger than Maurice. Despite a more than 20-year age difference Utter and Valadon soon became lovers. Valadon’s marriage to Mousis had become troubled and she felt confined by the lifestyle of a country wife. Valadon therefore left Mousis and she, Utter, Maurice, and Valadon’s mother all lived crowded together with her dogs, cats, and a goat in the small apartment in Montmartre. In 1910, Mousis filed for divorce but allowed Valadon and her unorthodox family to live for a while in the small house he had built in Montmagny, just North of Paris, where Valadon, Maurice, Utter became known as the “terrible trio” by more “proper” members of society because of their unusual living arrangement. Valadon wrote later that meeting Utter was a “renewal of her life.” In 1909, with Utter’s encouragement, she began to paint more than draw, and her creativity once again exploded along with her romantic life. She focused even more on nudes and sexual pleasure in her art. She painted Adam and Eve (1909) (in which she and Utter are naked), Joy of Living (1911), and Casting of the Net (1914). Valadon had her first solo exhibition in 1911 at the gallery of Clovis Sagot, followed by regular inclusion in the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Independents, as well as multiple showings by Berthe Weill, the only female art dealer in Paris at the time and a steady supporter of women artists.
Utter and Valadon got married in 1914, shortly before World War I began, and after a divorce from Mousis had been made official. After serving in the army Utter returned and became both Valadon and Maurice’s business manager. Her confidence and productivity once again peaked when Utter returned and she produced a number of paintings, including nudes, landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. This was achieved despite continual struggles with her son’s mental health, and bereavement over the deaths of some of her greatest friends - Degas in 1917, Renoir in December 1919, and Amadeo Modigliani in 1920. When the war ended Maurice’s landscape paintings were also in increasing demand and started to sell for higher prices. Valadon’s reputation continued to rise well into her sixties and she was well respected amongst her peers and critics. Somewhat frustratingly though, her paintings never commanded as much money as did those of her son. In 1920, Valadon was elected a member of the Salon d’Automne and there was an outpouring of praise for her solo show in December 1921. Art critic Robert Rey wrote, “The painting of these noble nudes is so clean, so clear, so natural, the colors so bold, the line always expressive … I want to say and repeat that Suzanne Valadon is a very great artist, on a level at least equal to Berthe Morisot.” Another wrote, “this extraordinary woman breathes life into everything she paints; [she] is passion itself and one seeks in vain to find someone to whom she can be compared.” Valadon was included in a scholarly art journal published in 1922 that praised her for her “fine courage.” She was not however, universally admired. According to June Rose, author of Suzanne Valadon: Mistress of Montmartre (1998), gallery owner Berthe Weill “commented on Valadon’s growing ability but noted that she had many detractors.” Rose writes that “she could be offhand and dismissive to both critics and buyers,” but was a “great artist.” Valadon was never labeled to be part of any formal school or movement. According to John Storm, author of The Drama of Suzanne Valadon (1958), “to her, art was an expression of private passion, uncomplicated, and irrational. Its theories were imposed by nature, not by group thinking. ‘Above all,’ she was to say later, ‘I believe that true theory is the one imposed by nature first on the painter and then on what he sees.’” Utter and Valadon’s romantic relationship began to deteriorate likely due to the stress of dealing with Maurice’s erratic behavior, and jealousy. Their circumstances changed however, and the load lightened slightly, when Parisian art dealer Bernheim-Jaune offered to pay Valadon and Maurice jointly a million francs in return for an agreed amount of work. This was a financial windfall, and Valadon immediately bought an old chateau in Villefranche-sur-Saone with the money. Henceforth, Valadon, Utter, and Maurice would spend summers in the new chateau and winters back in Montmartre. Valadon was generous with her money, always giving extravagant gifts and tips to those whom she felt needed it. Her paintings of the time, with patterned carpets, rich drapes, and tablecloths, reveal the prosperity of the milieu of which she was now a part. By the late 1920s it was Maurice’s paintings that sustained a primary income for the family. Valadon's physical appearance began to show the effects of aging as she moved through her 60s, but she continued to paint daily, figures that were more and more truthfully rendered. By the age of 70 Valadon’s health was failing and she made extended visits to the hospital. During one hospital visit, an old friend, Lucie Pauwels, offered to take care of Maurice. Soon after Maurice and Lucie were married, and in many ways Valadon felt as though she lost her son. She was jealous of Lucie and worried that she was only interested in the money that Maurice had accumulated. By this point Valadon was quite alone, long since separated from Utter.
Reclining Nude, Suzanne Valadon
Despite missing the men in her life, Valadon continued to paint and exhibit, making more landscape and still life paintings in the final years of life. She showed regularly at the Salon des Femmes Artistes Modernes between 1933 and her death. In 1937 the state bought many of her paintings, and she sold three major paintings and several drawings to the prestigious Musée de Luxembourg. She impressively had nineteen exhibitions between 1913 and 1932, and four major retrospectives before her death. On the morning of April 7, 1938, she was painting flowers at her easel when she had a stroke and died. She was not wealthy at this point, being too proud to accept money from her son and his wife. She was buried beside her mother in the cemetery at Saint-Ouen, in the northern suburbs of Paris. André Derain, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque were some of the notable artists who attended Valadon’s funeral along with many others. By the time of her death, Valadon had made around 300 drawings, over 450 oil paintings, and more than 30 etchings.
Suzane Valadon, Artistic Legacy
Due to the combined quality of her artwork and groundbreaking treatment and representation of the female nude Suzanne Valadon is considered one of the greatest early female artists. As muse to many of the most famous Impressionists, as well as an artist often making self-portraits she is one of the most well-documented and “seen” French artists. Thus she has become an important role model for following generations of female artists. Janet Burns writes in her paper, Looking as Women: The Paintings of Suzanne Valadon, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and Frida Kahlo (1992), “Given the bias of western culture to fetishizing the female body, the nude is a difficult genre for women artists. It is enshrined as an icon of culture that epitomizes and objectifies female sexuality. For these reasons it is resistant, although not impervious, to change.” Valadon was one of a handful of pioneering female artists who not only successfully transitioned from being an artist’s model to becoming an artist, but also succeeded in challenging the traditional male voyeuristic gaze. It was of course the case that women had depicted themselves in art before, but Valadon’s combination of the self-portrait and the nude was revolutionary with only Paula Modersohn-Becker known to have done this before her. After Valadon, many younger artists were inspired by her paintings of female nudes, and particularly those which were most realistic, with wrinkles and sagging and all. Alice Neel certainly embraced the same energy and agency and made aging self-portraits comparable to those of Valadon. Neel also inherited Valadon’s intense black line, saturated color palette, and love of painting her own children. Both artists successfully revealed the complex psychology present in their sitters, honoring them as people to be considered, rather than objects to be possessed. The British artist Jenny Saville, remembered for her depictions of very large fleshy nude self-portraits, was also likely guided by the new space of active women looking at themselves opened up by avant-gardes like Suzanne Valadon.