Valadon, Suzanne (1865–1938)

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Valadon, Suzanne (1865–1938)

French artist's model who taught herself to paint, then produced still lifes, landscapes, and especially realistic views of women. Pronunciation: Va-la-DAWN. Name variations: Maria; Suzanne Utter. Born Marie-Clémentine Valadon on September 23, 1865, at Bessines-sur-Gartempe, France; died on April 7, 1938, in Paris of a stroke; daughter of Madeleine Valadon (an unmarried seamstress) and an unknown father; had an elementary education in convent school in Paris, 1870–74; married Paul Mousis (a Parisian businessman), in 1896 (divorced around 1909); married André Utter (a painter), in 1914; children: (possibly with Miguel Utrillo y Molins, a Spanish artist) illegitimate son, Maurice Utrillo (b. 1883, the artist).

With her mother, settled in the Montmartre section of Paris (1866); began work as an artist's model (c. 1881); completed first known works (1884); met with Degas (c. 1887); Miguel Utrillo formally adopts her son Maurice (1891); completed first paintings (1892); had love affair with Erik Satie (1893); had initial exhibition of her work (1894); Maurice committed for the first time to an insane asylum (1901); began her affair with André Utter and began to confine her work to painting (1909); had one-woman exhibition at Weill gallery in Paris (1915); had first joint exhibition with Utter and Utrillo (1917); signed lucrative contract with art dealer Bernheim (1924); marriage of her son (1935).

Major works:

Adam and Eve (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1909); Joy of Living (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1911); The Fortune-teller (Petit Palais, Geneva, 1912); Casting of the Net (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1914); The Blue Room (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1923); The Church of St. Bernard (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1929).

Suzanne Valadon rose from an impoverished background as the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress to become a notable figure on the French art scene of the early 20th century. Distinguished by her lack of formal training, Valadon drew on her native talent, as well as her experiences as a model for some of France's most renowned painters, in producing her own body of work. Although she lived in an era in which European painting was dominated by such movements as Cubism, she went her own way and never became closely linked with them, although she may have been somewhat influenced by later trends in the artistic world, such as Post-Impressionism and Fauvism. Her work was characterized by its energy, realism verging on brutality, and rich color. As Anne Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin note: "She relied upon intuition rather than intellect and her canvases transmit the sensations of a highly charged, personal vision." Some critics, however, have pointed to the sometimes crude use of color and overly dramatic contrasts as the chief weakness in the work of this remarkable, intuitive artist.

Until the past decade or so, Valadon has been most famous for her colorful life as well as

for being the mother of Maurice Utrillo, one of the great French painters of the first half of the 20th century. In the words of her biographer Jeanine Warnod , Valadon's "life was like a serial film—a mixture of poverty and melodrama … against the background of Montmartre." Similarly, Germaine Greer notes, "Boldness was her hallmark, boldness of conception, boldness of design and boldness of execution," and Valadon "lived with the same uncompromising boldness." Unfortunately, many details of Valadon's biography remain in dispute; these range from the extent of the injuries that forced her to give up her career as a circus acrobat to the dates when she first encountered various members of the French art world. She left no diary or other written record of her life, and the accounts of her experiences with which she entertained friends and acquaintances in her later years were an uncertain mixture of fact and imagination.

In recent years, feminist writers, such as Whitney Chadwick , Germaine Greer and Patricia Mathews , have examined Valadon's life and work from a different perspective. They see her as an example of female achievement in a conspicuously male-dominated part of French life. In particular, they laud the way in which she painted female nudes, her artistic specialty, from a woman's perspective. She presented her audience with images of both attractive and unattractive women, but all appeared with a lack of self-consciousness conspicuously different from traditional nudes offered to "the male gaze." Notes Nancy Heller , "There is an assertive sexuality in many of Valadon's figures; the nudes are unashamedly naked …. [S]he painted bodies that have obvious substance." For Eleanor Tufts , Valadon's style "is characterized by a consistency of fluid, elegant contours and an unlabored plasticity of form." In Chadwick's view, Valadon rejected a presentation of "the female body as a lush surface isolated and controlled by the male gaze." Instead, Valadon "emphasizes the awkward gestures of figures apparently in control of their own movements."

Suzanne Valadon was born in the village of Bessines outside the French city of Limoges on September 23, 1865. The child was illegitimate; her mother Madeleine Valadon was a seamstress from a peasant family employed in a local bourgeois household. Her father may have been a railroad engineer working in the Limoges region or a laborer in a local flour mill. Her mother gave her the name Marie-Clémentine. She would become known as Suzanne only at the age of 18 or 19, renamed by her lover, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who told her that Marie-Clémentine was too pedestrian for someone who wanted to be a great artist.

Mother and daughter settled in Paris in 1866, apparently to escape the small-town scandal of the girl's illegitimate birth. They resided in Montmartre. Although this neighborhood was already a center of Parisian artistic life, Montmartre still had the character of a small, semi-rural community in the city's outskirts. Valadon spent the greater part of her life within this lively area which had formally become a part of Paris only a decade before their arrival.

Valadon had only a brief period of elementary education at the Convent of St. Vincent de Paul before she went out into the working world. Some authorities claim she got her first job at the age of nine; others say she was able to stay in school until she was eleven. According to biographer John Storm, Valadon spent much of her time as a barefoot and undisciplined street child. In later years, she claimed to have encountered and encouraged the young painter Auguste Renoir while he was at work on a Paris street scene. She was already beginning to draw, and she received beatings from her mother when Madeleine discovered the male and female nudes the child was sketching. She held a variety of jobs ranging from restaurant waitress to assistant in a millinery shop. At the age of 15 or 16, Valadon realized her childhood dream of becoming a circus performer. For about a year, she was an acrobat in a Parisian circus, a job she was forced to give up after an almost fatal accident.

From the early 1880s onward, Valadon was an artist's model. According to some sources, she first got to know some of the era's leading painters when she delivered the laundry which her mother had washed for them. Writes Tufts, "An appealing gamine with blue eyes and blonde hair, her supple body attracted the professional attention of the artists she liked to watch at work." She posed for some of the most brilliant painters of the era, including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Auguste Renoir. Her versatility as a model was evident in the year 1885 when Valadon appeared both as a jaded denizen of a Paris bar in Toulouse-Lautrec's The Bar and as a wholesome and attractive young woman in Renoir's The Braid.

An enthusiastic member of the bohemian circles of Montmartre, the pretty young model had a large number of sexual liaisons. She answered her mother's criticisms of her lifestyle by reminding Madeleine Valadon that she had given birth to an illegitimate daughter while respectably employed as a seamstress. When Suzanne gave birth to a son, Maurice, in December 1883, she herself seemed uncertain who the father was. She registered him at the local mayor's office as "Maurice Valadon." Eight years later, the Spanish journalist and amateur painter Miguel Utrillo legally accepted responsibility for fathering the child, and some students of Valadon's life now consider him to have been Maurice's actual parent.

According to some accounts, it was Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, her lover at the time, who recognized the young woman's remarkable innate talents. Other versions of her life say that her talent was first discovered by Renoir. In any case, from the early days in her modeling career Valadon had studied the skills of the artists who were painting her. Her initial works were self-portraits and images of her friends and family. At the urging of Toulouse-Lautrec, who was still in the early stages of his own career, she took samples of her work to Degas, probably in the year 1887. Already a distinguished painter, Degas was known for his generous attitude toward up-and-coming young artists. Toulouse-Lautrec

may also have wanted to contest Degas' long-held view that natural gifts without training and long study were an insufficient background for a real artist. Degas was immediately impressed with Valadon's work. The older artist "showered me with praise," she said. Their relationship was sufficiently close that "I dropped in at his studio every afternoon."

Initially, Valadon produced only drawings, but, starting in 1892, she began to paint as well. Meanwhile, she continued to do notable drawings, such as candidly nude depictions of her son as well as equally realistic portrayals of adolescent girls. These were everyday scenes, placed in her own apartment, of youngsters engaged in such acts as bathing or dressing. At Degas' insistence, she submitted five of her drawings to the Salon de la Nationale in 1894. Despite the obstacles for an unknown and untrained artist, she was nonetheless able to persuade the selection committee to exhibit her works that year. Degas continued to be a generous patron to the young woman in various ways, introducing her to art dealers, collectors, and other artists. He also gave her some formal instruction in making etchings. According to Warnod, this was "the only direct teaching she ever had." Valadon's early paintings included a portrait of the composer Erik Satie, her lover at the time.

On August 5, 1896, Suzanne Valadon's life took a new turn when she married the Parisian lawyer and businessman Paul Mousis and found herself in comfortable financial circumstances for the first time. She broadened her range of subjects once again, starting, in 1900, to produce still life paintings. A sadder theme, however, was her son's increasing alcoholism, which first became evident when he was only 13. At the beginning, she refused to recognize the problem. Nonetheless, starting in 1901, Maurice was sent off to the first in a series of institutions designed to deal with the mentally ill. In later years, Utrillo would describe Valadon as "a saintly woman whom I bless and venerate as one would a Goddess," and he would regret that his failure to follow his mother's advice meant that he "was dragged through the road of Vice … [to become] a repugnant drunkard."

During Maurice's confinement, Valadon diverted some of her despair into a new burst of activity. Although only a few drawings from this period have survived, Storm notes that she produced hundreds of nudes using herself as a model. They were, in his words, "deft, forceful, and supple, as nothing she had ever done up to that time had been." Female nudes became a central subject for Valadon during the remainder of her career. Writes Penny Dunford : "Valadon worked against the voyeurism" that male artists brought to such scenes. Her "strong, dark, sinuous outlines and bold colours" were used to show her subjects "at moments not normally depicted in art because of an ungainly position, or because it is a moment exclusive to women." Valadon's images, notes Mathews, "are radical in their very lack of a controlling gaze, a lack that shifts them out of traditional categories of the female nude."

Upon Maurice's release, his mother became determined to interest him in painting. The idea originated with one of Valadon's neighbors, a Freudian psychologist who thought that such an activity would constitute a useful form of therapy for the troubled young man. At first, Maurice was unenthusiastic, but Suzanne persisted with daily lessons until the teenager's extraordinary gifts as an artist became evident even to him. Writes Storm, "In this first spate of painting he found sound health and security at last."

Maurice Utrillo's small circle of friends presented his mother with a new influence in the person of André Utter. A young artist of 24, Utter first made Valadon's acquaintance in 1909 when he brought an intoxicated Maurice home after an evening of heavy drinking. Despite the difference in their ages—Valadon was now well into her 40s—the two soon became lovers and set up housekeeping together. Her divorce from Paul Mousis followed in short order, and, in 1914, she married Utter at his insistence just before he left for service in World War I.

By now, Valadon was offering her work in one-woman shows. Some accounts of her life indicate such a solo exhibition as early as 1911. It is certain, however, that she put on a one-woman exhibit in 1915 at the Weill gallery in Paris. It received critical acclaim, and, according to some authorities, commercial success as well. In any case, now cut off from Mousis' financial support, Valadon was able to live on the proceeds from the sale of Maurice Utrillo's paintings. Starting in 1917, she, her son, and her husband presented the public with a series of joint exhibitions of their works.

Following the end of World War I, there was a boom in the sale of French paintings. Thus, even as her life was increasingly darkened with Maurice Utrillo's mental illness, Valadon saw her career and reputation flourish. Her works came to include group portraits, in the form of both drawings and paintings. Warnod has found a social basis for some of the new subjects Valadon now took up. Freed by time and artistic success from her humble origins, Valadon now "emphasized her new status by her portraits of respectable women" including the wives of government officials and art critics. The years with Utter also saw her increasingly interested in painting landscapes and urban scenes, and her work was widely exhibited. Sales brought her a substantial amount of wealth until the onset of the Depression. In the 1920s, money also flowed in from the sale of Maurice Utrillo's paintings. By now Utter had abandoned his own work as a painter to become the family's art dealer and business manager. During these years of prosperity, Valadon made up for her impoverished early life: she threw lavish parties, surrounded herself with flowers, and frequented the best Parisian restaurants. In one notably flamboyant gesture, she hired a taxi for a drive of 350 miles so that she could pick strawberries from her country garden. In flower stores, she sometimes responded to her indecision over what to buy by purchasing everything in the shop. But the alcoholism that had developed so strongly in her son also became a growing part of her own personality as she began to drink heavily.

In 1923, Valadon, her husband, and her son settled in a rundown medieval castle in the small town of Saint-Bernard in the Beaujolais region. In 1920, her son had been released from a mental institution only because she agreed to supervise him. But now Maurice, who continued to paint brilliantly, had gone beyond alcoholism to become suicidal, and Suzanne Valadon hoped a relocation to the countryside might help her nurse him back to health. The new locale became the inspiration for some of her notable landscapes, including The Church of Saint-Bernard, completed in 1929.

Valadon prided herself upon her ability to separate her reputation from that of other female artists. Starting in the 1920s, she exhibited her work merely as "Valadon," with the absence of a first name, indicating that she was now presenting her work in the normal fashion for a male artist. It was only under extreme financial pressure during the following decade that she reluctantly agreed to exhibit her work in all-female shows in the hope of boosting her meager sales.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Valadon grew increasing obsessed by the loss of her youthful beauty. For years, she had hidden her exact age from people, but now she flaunted the passage of time. A candid self-portrait done in the nude in 1932 graphically displayed her drooping breasts as well as her poorly fitting false teeth. By the early 1930s, her relationship with André Utter ended with an informal separation. The two had become increasingly estranged as a result of Utter's love affairs, his drinking, and his violence toward her. Valadon's troubled son finally married in 1935, to a widow, Lucie Pauwels , but the end of Valadon's responsibility for caring for Maurice also brought her a deep sense of loneliness. She herself had a serious illness, the first in her life, in 1935 when she was hospitalized with a kidney infection.

The unique and energetic painter died of a stroke in Paris on April 7, 1938. She had been at work painting a still life with flowers and died en route to the hospital. The wild young artist's model had ended up as a pious woman who was a regular presence for mass at the local Catholic church. She was also the hostess to such prominent figures in French life as Prime Minister Edouard Herriot. Valadon's funeral was the occasion for a gathering of the Parisian art world, with such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and André Derain in attendance. The woman, whose first role in the Montmartre art scene had been as an impoverished model, was now recognized as a leading French artist. "I think maybe God," she once said, "has made me France's greatest woman painter."


Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. London: Thames & Hudson, 1990.

Dunford, Penny. A Biographical Dictionary of Women Artists in Europe and America Since 1850. NY: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.

Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.

Harris, Anne Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists, 1550–1950. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976.

Lipton, Eunice. "Representing Sexuality in Women Artists' Biographies: the Cases of Suzanne Valadon and Victorine Meurent," in The Journal of Sex Research. Vol. 27, 1990, pp. 81–93.

Mathews, Patricia. "Returning the Gaze: Diverse Representations of the Nude in the Art of Suzanne Valadon," in The Art Bulletin. Vol. 73, 1991, pp. 415–430.

Mcmullen, Roy. Degas: His Life, Times, and Work. London: Secker and Warburg, 1985.

Storm, John. The Valadon Drama: The Life of Suzanne Valadon. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1959.

Tufts, Eleanor. Our Hidden Heritage: Five Centuries of Women Artists. NY: Paddington Press, 1974.

Warnod, Jeanine. Suzanne Valadon. NY: Crown, 1981.

suggested reading:

Baylis, Sarah. Utrillo's Mother. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Betterton, Rosemary, ed. Looking On: Images of Femininity in the Visual Arts and Media. London: Pandora, 1987.

Rose, June. Suzanne Valadon: The Mistress of Montmartre. St. Martin's, 1999.

Wallis, Brian, ed. Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation. NY: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984.

Warnod, Jeanine. Maurice Utrillo. NY: Crown, 1983.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California