French artist Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938) was an artist's model before becoming a respected painter herself. Part of a circle of artists living and working in Paris's Montmartre neighborhood at the turn of the twentieth century, Valadon was one of the most notable female artists of the period. Valadon is also remembered for her many love affairs and as the mother of prominent French painter Maurice Utrillo.
Worked During Childhood
Valadon was born Marie Clémentine Valadon on September 23, 1865, in the small town of Bessines, located in northeastern France. (Later in life, Valadon claimed her date of birth was July 23, 1867, although this date is not supported by records.) Her mother, Madeleine Valadon, worked as a sewing maid; the identity of her father was not known. At the age of five, Valadon relocated to Paris with her mother. She attended a convent school for a few years before taking a job in a milliner's workshop at age 11. Valadon also worked as a funeral wreath maker, a vegetable seller, and a waitress while still a child.
When Valadon was a teenager, she befriended some artists living in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, a bustling artist's community. These artists helped Valadon get a job as an acrobat at the Mollier circus. 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. After several weeks she essentially recovered, but remained unable to perform in a circus for the remainder of her life due to the injury. However, her brief stint with the circus remained one of her fondest memories.
Was Artists' Model and Lover
After Valadon recovered from her back injury in 1880, she caught the eye of painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. This began Valadon's career as an artist's model. For the next seven years, Valadon posed for several of Puvis's paintings and was presumed to have been sexually involved with him. Writing in Suzanne Valadon: Mistress of Montmartre, June Rose noted that "her employers assumed the right to make love to their girls," and the career of model was at that time a somewhat scandalous one. Valadon also sat for other major Impressionist painters, including Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Some of the more notable paintings featuring Valadon include Puvis's 1884–1886 piece Sacred Wood and Toulouse-Lautrec's 1889 The Hangover.
As an artists' model, Valadon became an active member of the artistic community of Montmartre. She shortened her name to "Maria" and became a regular at the famed tavern Lapin-Agile as well as the early cabaret Le Chat Noir. 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 while wearing only a mask. In 1881 Valadon began a relationship with Spaniard Miguel Utrillo. On December 26, 1883, Valadon gave birth on to an illegitimate son, Maurice Utrillo, who later became a renowned painter in his own right. Valadon herself seemed uncertain as to who the father of her child was; 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. Valadon gave her young son to her mother to raise, returning to work as a model.
From Model to Painter
Valadon's first known works, a pastel called Self-Portrait and a drawing of her mother called The Grandmother, date from 1883. During the mid- to late-1880s, Valadon produced many drawings and pastels of people and of street scenes. Her artistic endeavors were assisted by Toulouse-Lautrec, for whom she often modeled and with whom she had a lengthy affair. Valadon worked to hone her skills by observing the techniques of the artists who painted her, becoming a fully self-taught artist over the years. In 1890 she became friends with painter Edgar Degas. After seeing some of Valadon's work, Degas encouraged her efforts to become an artist, buying some of her pieces and helping her get her career started. Due to encouragement from Degas, in 1894 Valadon became the first woman to show at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, a major French artistic accomplishment.
All of Valadon's early works were drawings executed in pencil or pastel. In the early 1890s 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; Rose noted that "at that stage in her life, her love affairs seemed to pass over her like sunshine." After the affair with Satie ended, Valadon's involvement with Montmartre stockbroker Paul Mousis 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.
Artistic Growth and Personal Turmoil
Valadon's unique style became more apparent once she had the freedom to practice her craft unfettered by financial concerns. Because Valadon was untrained, she approached art with a different perspective than the other artists of her day. Foremost among Valadon's subjects were portraits of all types and female nudes. In the former genre, she captured an intensity of feeling and depth in her subjects with bold, heavy strokes. In Great Women Masters of Art, Jordi Vigué noted of Valadon's treatment of the female nude that "she reinvented [it] to a certain degree, rendering it with notable sincerity, frankness, and energy."
Following her marriage to Mousis, Valadon left the city for a home in the country. Here, she tried to balance her new duties as conventional wife with those of a working artist. In the late 1890s Valadon produced less work of artistic value, and made only a few sales, primarily to fellow artists. However, two of her engravings appeared at a large London show put on by the International Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers in 1898, probably due to the influence of Degas.
Valadon's son, Maurice, did not adjust well to country life. He completed primary school outside of Paris, but as a teenager attended school in Montmartre. He did well with his studies, but began to develop a problem with alcohol. Valadon turned her attention to her son's wellbeing, neglecting her fledgling artistic career; however, Maurice became progressively more unstable. In the early 1900s, Valadon began encouraging Maurice to paint as a means of therapy. Maurice exhibited artistic talent, but his mental problems did not cease. In 1904 Maurice was committed to a mental hospital for treatment of alcoholism and other problems. Valadon continued his art lessons after his release a few months later.
A New Lover
Valadon's relationship with husband Mousis was marred by problems nearly from the start. In 1906 Valadon met a friend of her son's, Andre Utter, who was himself a young painter. Utter was intrigued by Valadon, and three years later the two began an affair. Valadon was by then 44 to Utter's 23. Prodded by Utter, Valadon returned more seriously to her art, producing a significant number of paintings for the first time in years. Among these works were the definitive Summer, After the Bath, and Adam and Eve. This last painting, modeled on Valadon and her young lover, was the first piece executed by a female artist to show a nude man and woman together. As the relationship between Valadon and Utter intensified, she at first tried to hide it from her husband. However, she became careless and Mousis found out, breaking off the marriage. He officially divorced Valadon in March of 1910.
After the dissolution of her marriage, Valadon continued to paint in earnest, as well as producing a lesser number of drawings and engravings. In 1910 she painted her first landscape and her first nude self-portrait. Despite these advances, Valadon was beginning to be overshadowed by her tumultuous artist son and his contemporaries, including Picasso. Over the next few years, Valadon, her lover, and her son lived together in the Montmartre on the proceeds of their artwork. When World War I erupted 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.
World War I and Beyond
In 1915 Valadon's mother died at the age of 84. Valadon's son was called up and subsequently rejected for military service, and was again committed to a mental institution at the end of that year. Caught up in these matters, Valadon painted little; however, among the works she produced was a somewhat more traditional portrait of Mauricia Coquiot, wife of an art critic and aspiring dealer. Valadon's first one-woman exhibit also occurred in 1915, although the show produced practically no sales. The following year Valadon commenced a series of paintings using a young model with whom she tried to arrange a marriage for her son. Although the marriage did not occur, Valadon produced many drawings using the young model. 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, both Utter and Valadon returned to the city. Utter marketed his works, as well as those of Valadon and Maurice Utrillo, most successfully those of the latter.
However, Valadon had reached her peak as an artist. She produced paintings and drawings at a rapid pace, and in 1920 was elected to the Salon d'Automne. 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 but only moderate sales. Her increasingly unstable son's artworks consistently overshadowed those of his mother commercially.
Later Life and Legacy
In 1924 Valadon signed a contract with the art gallery Bernheim-Jeune, enabling her to again live in financial comfort. She purchased a country estate called Saint-Bernard and spent much of her time there. However, tensions among Valadon, Utter, and Utrillo continued, fueled somewhat by Utrillo's continuing dominance professionally. By the end of the 1920s, Utter had taken up drinking and womanizing. Valadon continued to produce works, showing at a major retrospective in 1929. Many works from this period depict her beloved pets, much as her early drawings had shown her mother and son. Another major retrospective of Valadon's work was held in 1932.
Through the 1930s Valadon's health slowly declined. In 1935 she entered the hospital for complications of diabetes and kidney dysfunction. That same year, her son married and left his mother's home. Utter had also moved out, although he and Valadon never divorced. Valadon's life continued to be filled with friends, visitors, and art despite the exodus of her family. In 1937 the prestigious Musée du Luxembourg purchased three of Valadon's major paintings as well as many of her drawings. Rose noted in her book that Valadon craved "recognition as an artist … not personal fame."
On April 7, 1938, Valadon was painting at her easel when she unexpectedly suffered a stroke. She died at the hospital just hours later, at the age of 72. A complete survey of her work totals over 475 paintings, nearly 275 drawings, and 31 etchings; this does not include many works destroyed or lost over the years. For years after her death, Valadon's reputation remained closely linked to her son's; however, in the latter part of the twentieth century, increasing interest in the works of women artists such as Valadon led to an increased appreciation of her life, art, and contributions.
Rose, June, Suzanne Valadon: Mistress of Montmartre, St. Martin's, 1999.
Vigue, Jordi, Great Women Masters of Art, Watson-Guptill, 2002.
Warnod, Jeanine, Suzanne Valadon, Crown, 1981.