summary by suzanne valadon
typically sporting a look of defiance and a slight scowl, suzanne valadon lived and worked in the absolute epicenter of artistic paris in its heyday. She was a model and dear friend to some of the most celebrated artists of a generation, as well as a groundbreaking artist in her own right. she forged a career in the world of men, defied the conventions of the nude, and carved a critical new space in which to consider a woman’s body. Valadon’s portraits are based on real emotions and real physical experiences; they encourage women to search for themselves and to recover their own point of view. While his technique and observational style have much in common with the French and English Post-Impressionists, his forceful and multilayered thematic approach—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 hub, as well as a shining beacon for feminist art.
- valadon differed from her contemporaries, berthe morisot and mary cassatt, who, born into upper-middle-class families, had restricted subject matter and viewpoints. Born to a single mother and raised on the streets, Valadon developed the confidence to be independent, paint more challenging pictures, and define her own identity outside of prevailing norms. what seemed like an unfortunate start in life for her was potentially a golden ticket in the male-dominated art scene of the time.
- Whether that was his intention or not, Valadon adds food for thought to the theoretical debates surrounding the issue of attraction between men and women and the politics of looking addressed later in the century (by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, John Berger, and Laura Mulvey). there is a very strong sense in all of valadon’s work that seeks to demystify sex and present passion and libido as common experiences shared by all. women present themselves as active equals also in possession of the hungry gaze.
- Not only an artist, Valadon is also famous for her inclusion in the notable works of so many other artists. she doubled as a muse and artist. She worked for 10 years as a model for professional artists, while skillfully sourcing contacts, ideas, and techniques.
- throughout his career, valadon returned to self-portrait. a deep and penetrating self-awareness seemed to flow like a strong wave in the early twentieth century and brought with it a greater awareness of vulnerability and mortality, namely Expressionism. Other artists, including Kathe Kollwitz, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and Helene Schjerfbeck, explored similar themes.
the life of suzanne valadon
important art by suzanne valadon
biography of suzanne valadon
Suzanne Valadon was born Marie-Clémentine Valadon in 1865 in Bessines, France, to an unmarried laundress, Madeleine, and never knew her father. the fact of her birth immediately branded her as an outcast, transgressor, and rebellious; these were the characteristics that she valadon embraced and transformed to become positive as she developed as a person and as an artist.
When valadon was five years old, her mother took her and her half-sister to live in paris with her aunt to escape the stigma of being a single parent. it was a time of great political turmoil, and ella madeleine she decided to move her family to montmartre, a lively little area that she had managed to retain a certain village quality and, as such, reminded him of her home. it was known as the bohemian neighborhood of paris, where artists, prostitutes, pimps and other creative and unusual characters lived. the family felt at home here, and valadon grew up wandering the streets and getting into mischief while her mother worked as a house cleaner. According to Catherine Hewitt, author of renoir’s dancer: the secret life of suzanne valadon, valadon later reported, “the streets of montmartre were my home…only in the streets was there emotion and love and ideas, what other kids found around their dining tables.” She also called herself “devil” and behaved more “boyishly” and was lucky in many ways, saying that “solitude suited me”.
valadon was remarkably stubborn, independent, and short-tempered from an early age. however, he was also sensitive, fun-loving, charming, full of energy, and well-liked. she was attractive, with big blue eyes and golden brown curls that framed her face. Her imagination was vivid, and she sometimes told stories to suit her needs, regardless of truth or logic, one of which was that the 15th-century poet François Villon was her father. . later he too would lie about his age at times, always determined to create the life he wanted instead of accepting a somewhat lesser or expected reality thrust upon him.
As a child, Valadon had already shown an avid interest in art, and could draw relatively well by around the age of eight. he would draw on any scrap of paper he found, on the walls of his house and even on the pavement, often with just the stub of a pencil or sometimes with a piece of charcoal. Her subjects varied widely, but were often those that she observed and found interesting in her immediate surroundings, including flowers, trees, cats and dogs, and of course, people.
valadon began working odd jobs to help support her mother financially at the age of 11 after attending school at a nearby convent for a short time. at the age of 15 she became an acrobat in the popular circus molier, a job valadon took an instant liking to. he unfortunately had only worked in the circus for six months when he fell off the trapeze, hurt his back and ended his career. It was a devastating blow for the young Valadon to have to leave the circus, a sadness she cherished forty years after her saying that she would never have left voluntarily if it hadn’t been for her injury. however, after leaving, as if fate had intervened, her energy had to be channeled elsewhere; she at this time she plunged headlong into the world of art.
early training and work
Valadon strove 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 closer to and learn from the artists she admired, even though modeling, especially nude, was not considered a respectable occupation. She modeled for ten years, starting at 15. Some of the artists she posed for, and perhaps was a mistress/mistress for a while as well, included Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Without realizing it at the time (or maybe she did, we can’t tell), it was through modeling that Ella Valadon carved out a unique journey for herself as an artist. As a woman painting at the time, she gained privileged private access to the most influential and exciting developments in art, in a way that other female artists did not. she managed to transform what one might mistakenly assume as disrespect through modeling into greater respect from her male peers.
As he matured, Valadon frequented many of the cafés that sprang up in Paris in the 1880s and enjoyed the entertainment and camaraderie he found there. Le Chat Noir became a notable favorite for Valadon, as it was for many of the Impressionist painters, as well as other avant-garde musicians, artists, and writers working at the time. Valadon, feeling at home among creative and passionate individuals, was happy and popular. he got into all kinds of fun adventures, including sliding down the railing at the moulin de la galette wearing only a mask.
valadon met miguel utrillo in le chat noir in 1880 when she was 15 years old. he was three years older than her and there was an immediate attraction between them. Hewitt writes that Valadon said of their relationship, “at a time when hardly anyone was paying attention to me, he encouraged me, strengthened me, and supported me…. With Michel (Miguel) I spent the best years of my youth…. we led an artistic and bohemian life.” When Utrillo moved from Paris two years later, the couple kept in touch. their relationship, however passionate it was, was not exclusive. When Valadon, at age 18, gave birth to her son, Maurice, Utrillo named the baby his and signed the birth certificate as her father, though he was never entirely sure that was the case. outside. Maurice was primarily cared for by Valadon’s mother so that Valadon could continue to work as a model and earn money.
Both at the time, and to this day, it is speculated that the father of Valadon’s baby may have been Renoir, as Valadon frequently modeled for him in 1882 when she became pregnant. at that time renoir was 40 years old and one of the most famous artists in paris. Renoir loved to use Valadon as a 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 depicted is believed to be an amalgamation of Valadon and Renoir’s wife, and therefore perhaps his ideal woman. valadon modeled for renoir from the age of 17 to 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 convinced her to change her name from marie-clémentine to suzanne, making a comic reference to the biblical story of susanna and the elders, since valadon liked to model for artists greater. He was kind and encouraging to Valadon and was so impressed by his drawings that he introduced him to Edgar Degas, another artist who became a close friend and, as his career developed, his most influential artistic mentor.
His friendship with Degas blossomed rather surprisingly because he was generally known to be a loner and it was unusual for him to make a new friend, although it is well known that he was also related to Berthe Morisot for a time. Like Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas also recognized Valadon’s talent early on, poignantly saying, upon viewing his work, “You’re one of us.” he encouraged and instructed her, bought some of her art, taught her to engrave on her own press, and had an enormous influence on her confidence and artistic development. In return, Valadon referred to Degas as “the Master” and showed him unwavering respect and considerate friendship until his death.
Some of Valadon’s earliest known works on paper date from 1883, including a towering and accomplished pastel self-portrait. it is believed that she drew the first female nude of her around 1892 and that until the following year she made mostly pastel and charcoal drawings, mainly of her son and his family. the first known oil painting of hers is from a similar year, but even after adding the medium of oil painting to her repertoire, she continued to prefer drawing because paints were hard to come by and she had to mix her own . she said, “she was so wild and proud that she didn’t want to paint. … I tried to make my palette so simple that I didn’t have to think about it.”
A burgeoning artist, Valadon showed five drawings at the National Society of Fine Arts Salon in 1894; historically she was the first female painter to have admitted work. In 1895, she exhibited 12 etchings of women in various stages of her bath (heavily influenced by Degas) and began exhibiting regularly at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris.
in 1892, valadon had an intense six-month affair with composer erik satie while she was also simultaneously dating a wealthy stockbroker, paul mousis. eventually, the relationship with satie ended because valadon refused to commit to him or end the relationship with mousis.
period of maturity
in 1896, valadon married mousis and moved his family, including his mother and son, to their home in montagny, north of paris. mousis also continued to rent a small apartment and studio in montmartre for valadon so that he could return to the city often. Eventually, not having to work for a living, Valadon was able to paint full-time. she and mousis were married for 13 years, during which time she lived a comfortable bourgeois life. Her drawings and etchings by her began to be sold at the gallery le barc de Boutteville, and the art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, began publishing her etchings. She mainly continued to draw and paint women involved in everyday activities such as bathing. although these scenes were relatively common depicted by valadon’s male contemporaries, it was still unusual and even shocking for a female artist to paint nudes, especially since these images of women were generally truthful rather than idealized representations.
Now that he was a young man, Maurice suffered from depression, wild rage, and alcoholism. A doctor suggested that painting might be a good therapy for Maurice, so Valadon began spending time with him and giving him lessons. Initially reluctant, Maurice quickly began to show real talent. Despite a new approach, Maurice remained a turbulent personality and from 1904 (in his early 20s) he committed a series of violent episodes and as such was often arrested. In many ways, this was a difficult time in Valadon’s life. in 1901 he learned of the untimely death of his friend, toulouse-lautrec, at the age of 37. He encouraged his son to concentrate on painting, and gradually Maurice grew to enjoy his mother’s tutelage and became very successful.
in 1909, maurice met and befriended another young artist named andré utter. Utter was then 23 years old and therefore three years younger than Maurice. Despite an age difference of more than 20 years, Utter and Valadon soon became lovers. Valadon’s marriage to Mousis had become troubled, and she felt confined to the lifestyle of a country wife. So Valadon left Mousis, and she, Utter, Maurice, and Valadon’s mother lived crammed together with their dogs, cats, and a goat in the small apartment in Montmartre. In 1910, Mousis filed for divorce, but allowed Valadon and his unorthodox family to live for a time 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 due to their unusual way of life.
valadon later wrote that meeting utter was a “renewal of his life”. In 1909, with Utter’s encouragement, he began to paint rather than draw, and his creativity flared up again along with his romantic life. he further focused on nudity and sexual pleasure in his art. she painted adam and eve (1909) (in which she and utter are nude), the joy of living (1911) and throwing the net (1914).
valadon had her first solo show in 1911 at the clovis sagot gallery, followed by regular listings at the salon d’automne and salon des independents, as well as multiple exhibitions by berthe weill, the only female art dealer in Paris at the time and a constant supporter of women artists.
utter and valadon were married in 1914, shortly before the first world war began, and after mousis’s divorce was made official. After serving in the military, Utter returned and became Valadon and Maurice’s business manager. His confidence and productivity once again peaked when Utter returned and produced a series of paintings, including nudes, landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. This was achieved despite ongoing struggles with his son’s mental health and mourning the deaths of some of his best 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 began to sell for higher prices. Valadon’s reputation continued to rise well into his sixties and she was highly regarded among his peers and critics. Although somewhat frustrating, her paintings never made as much money as her son’s. In 1920, Valadon was elected a member of the Salon d’Automne and there was an outpouring of praise for her December 1921 solo show. Art critic Robert Rey wrote, “The painting of these noble nudes is so clean, so clear, so natural, the colors so daring, the line always expressive… I want to say and repeat that suzanne valadon is a great artist, at least on the same level as berthe morisot”. another wrote, “this extraordinary woman brings everything she paints to life; [she] is the passion of herself and one searches in vain to find someone with whom she can be compared”. Valadon was included in a scholarly art journal published in 1922 which praised her for her “fine courage” of hers. however, she was not 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.” Ella Rose writes that she “could be brusque and dismissive to critics and buyers alike,” but she 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), “for her, art was an expression of private, uncomplicated and irrational passion. her theories were imposed by nature, not by groupthink. “Above all,” she would later say, “I believe that the true theory is the one that nature imposes 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. However, their circumstances changed and the load was lightened somewhat, when the Parisian art dealer Bernheim-Jaune offered to pay Valadon and Maurice jointly one million francs in exchange for an agreed amount of work. This was a financial windfall, and Valadon immediately bought an old castle in Villefranche-sur-Saone with the money. From now on, Valadon, Utter, and Maurice would spend their summers in the new castle and their winters in Montmartre. Valadon was generous with her money, always giving extravagant gifts and tips to those she felt were in need. Her paintings of her time, with patterned rugs, rich draperies and tablecloths, reveal the prosperity of the milieu she was now a part of.
in the late 1920s, maurice’s paintings were the primary source of income for the family. Valadon’s physical appearance began to show the effects of aging as he passed his 60s, but he continued to paint on a daily basis, depicting figures with increasing truthfulness.
At the age of 70, Valadon’s health was failing and she made prolonged visits to the hospital. During a visit to the hospital, an old friend, Lucie Pauwels, offered to look after Maurice. shortly after maurice and lucie were married, and in many ways, valadon felt that she had lost her child. she was jealous of lucie and worried that she was only interested in the money maurice had accumulated. Valadon was pretty lonely at this point, she’s long since parted ways with Utter.
Despite missing the men in her life, Valadon continued to paint and exhibit, doing more landscapes and still lifes in the later years of her life. She exhibited 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 Luxembourg Museum. She impressively had nineteen exhibitions between 1913 and 1932, and four major retrospectives before her death.
On the morning of April 7, 1938, he was painting flowers at his easel when he suffered a stroke and died. she was not rich at this time, being too proud to accept money from her son and her wife. she was buried next to her mother in the saint-ouen cemetery, 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. At the time of her death, Valadon had produced over 300 drawings, over 450 oil paintings, and over 30 etchings.
the legacy of suzanne valadon
Due to the combined quality of her artwork and innovative treatment and depiction of the female nude, Suzanne Valadon is considered one of the most important early female artists. As the muse of many of the most famous Impressionists, as well as being an artist who often makes self-portraits, she is one of the best documented and “seen” French artists. She has therefore become an important role model for subsequent generations of female artists. Janet Burns writes in her article, Looking Like Women: The Paintings of Suzanne Valadon, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and Frida Kahlo (1992), “given Western culture’s bias to fetishize the female body, The nude is a difficult genre for female artists. it is enshrined as a cultural icon that personifies and objectifies female sexuality. for these reasons it is resistant, although not impervious, to change. Valadon was one of a handful of pioneering artists who not only successfully transitioned from artist model to artist, but also managed to challenge the traditional male voyeuristic gaze.
Of course, women had represented themselves in art before, but Valadon’s combination of the self-portrait and the nude was revolutionary and only Paula Modersohn-Becker is known to have done this before her. After Valadon, many younger artists were inspired by his paintings of female nudes, and particularly the ones that were more realistic, wrinkles and sagging and all. Alice Neel certainly embraced the same energy and agency and made aged selfies comparable to Valadon’s. Neel also inherited Valadon’s deep black line, saturated color palette, and love of painting her own children. both artists successfully revealed the complex psychology present in their models, honoring them as people to be considered, rather than objects to be owned. British artist Jenny Saville, remembered for her renderings of oversized fleshy nude self-portraits, was probably also guided by the new space of active women looking at themselves opened up by avant-gardes like Suzanne Valadon.