Sunday, 10 September 2017


“When women pose thoughtfully and artistically - in nothing but their bare skin - they find themselves. They discover that they are truly alive. They become a Nude.” - David Allio 

Suzanne Valadon (23 September 1865 – 7 April 1938) was a French painter and artists’ model who was born Marie-Clémentine Valadon at Bessines-sur-Gartempe, Haute-Vienne, France. In 1894, Valadon became the first woman painter admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She was also the mother of painter Maurice Utrillo. The subjects of her drawings and paintings included mostly female nudes, female portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. She never attended the academy and was never confined within a tradition. Valadon spent nearly 40 years of her life as an artist.

Valadon grew up in poverty with her mother, an unmarried laundress; she did not know her father. Known to be quite independent and rebellious, she attended primary school until age 11. In 1883, aged 18, Valadon gave birth to her illegitimate son, Maurice Utrillo. Valadon’s mother cared for Maurice while she returned to modelling. Valadon’s friend Miguel Utrillo would later sign papers recognising Maurice as his son, although his true paternity is uncertain.

Valadon helped to educate herself in art by reading Toulouse-Lautrec’s books and observing the artists at work for whom she posed. In 1893, Valadon began a short-lived affair with composer Erik Satie, moving to a room next to his on the Rue Cortot. Satie became obsessed with her, calling her his Biqui, writing impassioned notes about “her whole being, lovely eyes, gentle hands, and tiny feet”, but after six months she left, leaving him devastated.

Valadon married stockbroker Paul Moussis in 1895, leading a bourgeois life for 13 years at an apartment in Paris and a house in the suburbs. In 1909, Valadon began an affair with the painter André Utter, age 23 and a friend of her son, divorcing Moussis in 1913. Valadon married Utter in 1914, and he managed her career as well as her son’s. Valadon and Utter regularly exhibited work together until the couple divorced in 1934. Valadon was well known during her lifetime but within the art historical narrative her work has long been overshadowed by a Bohemian and lower class lifestyle.

Valadon debuted as a model in 1880 in Montmartre at age 15. She modelled for over 10 years for many different artists including the following: Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Théophile Steinlen, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. She modelled under the name “Maria” eventually being nicknamed “Suzanne” after the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders. She was considered a very focused, ambitious, rebellious, determined, self-confident, and passionate woman. In the early 1890s she befriended Edgar Degas who, impressed with her bold line drawings and fine paintings, purchased her work and encouraged her; she remained one of his closest friends until his death.

It’s probable that Valadon’s experience as a model added depth to her own images of nude women, which tended to be less idealised than that of the male post impressionists representations. The most recognisable image of Valadon would be in Renoir’s “Danceat Bougival” from 1883, the same year that she posed for “Dance in the City”. In 1885, Renoir painted her portrait again as “Girl Braiding Her Hair”. Another of his portraits of her in 1885, Suzanne Valadon, is of her head and shoulders in profile. Valadon frequented the bars and taverns of Paris with her fellow painters, and she was Toulouse-Lautrec’s subject in his oil painting “The Hangover”.

Valadon taught herself how to draw at the age of nine. She painted still lifes, portraits, flowers, and landscapes that are noted for their strong composition and vibrant colours. She was, however, best known for her candid female nudes that depict women’s bodies from a woman’s perspective. This is particularly important because it was unusual in the nineteenth century for a woman artist to make female nudes her primary subject matter. Valadon was not confined to a specific style, yet both Symbolist and Post-Impressionist aesthetics are clearly seen within her work.

Valadon primarily worked with oil paint, oil pencils, pastels, and red chalk; she did not use ink or watercolour because these media were too fluid for her preference. Valadon’s paintings feature rich colours and bold, open brushwork often featuring firm black lines to define and outline her figures. She used hard black lines to emphasise the structure of the body. She also used firm lines in her nudes to highlight the play of light on curves

Valadon’s self-portraits, portraits, nudes, landscapes, and still lifes remain detached from trends and aspects of academic art. The subjects of Valadon’s paintings often reinvented the old master’s themes: Women bathing, reclining nudes, and interior scenes. However the nudes Valadon paints veer far from the norms of this male dominated genre, the paintings are interpreted in a much different way which could contradict of question the nature of the genre. Many have suggested a vibrant, emotional sense that emanates from her drawings and paintings as a result from an intimate, familiar observation of these women’s bodies. Similarly to Valadon, Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt painted mostly women, yet because of their middle class status in French society at the time they were unable to paint the nude body, regardless of gender.

The painting above is “The Joy of Life” from 1911 and is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in new York City. Unfortunately, it is not on public view.

1 comment:

  1. Suzanne Valadon was the quintessential bohemian.I love the Renoir painting of her.Spring is here finally after a long cold winter..time to don you poet's hat for a bit methinks. You have been away a long time.:)