The bold, defiant artist gained critical acclaim in her lifetime and was recognised alongside the male artists she had once posed for
By Mhairi Grant
You might recognise Suzanne Valadon for her work as an artist’s model. Working in Paris in the late nineteenth century, Suzanne Valadon sat for many notable painters, which have since dominated the art history books, including Renoir and Toulouse-Loutrec. However, it was Valadon’s experience as a model that gave her a platform to launch her own artistic career and she would go on to become a highly acclaimed artist in her own right.
Valadon was born Marie-Clémentine Valadon in Bessines-sur-Gartempe, a small town in Western France, on 23 September 1865. Raised by her unmarried mother who worked as a laundress, the pair relocated to Paris when Valadon was 5 years old. After attending a convent school, Valadon began working from the age of 11 in a hat-making’s workshop. By 1880, at the age of 15, Valadon became acquainted with a group of artists living in the Montmartre neighbourhood of Paris, a moment which would become a turning point in her life. It was this association that helped her to get a job as an acrobat in the famous Molier circus, which began her journey as an artists’ model. Although her career in the circus was relatively short-lived due to a serious fall, Valadon continued to model for over a decade.
Perhaps one of the most famous paintings in which Valadon appears is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Dance at Bougival (1883), an exuberant scene set against the backdrop of an open-air cafe in the Parisian suburbs. Less joyous, but still as famous, is The Hangover (1888) by Henri de Toulouse-Loutrec, which depicts her slouched over a half-empty bottle of wine. Valadon also modelled regularly for Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, most notably as the model for several of the figures in his mural for the Sorbonne: Sacred Wood (1889). These associations with older, male artists prompted Toulouse-Loutrec to give Valadon the nickname ‘Suzanne’ after the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders; a name which she would later adopt.
Despite being unable to afford a traditional arts education, Valadon used her experience as a model to learn from other artists and hone her painting skills. Some of her first known works were pastel drawings of herself and her family, including her son Maurice Utrillo, who was born in 1883 to an unknown father: Self Portrait (1883), Portrait of Mother (1883), and Young Utrillo (1886). In 1890, Valadon befriended the painter Edgar Degas who purchased some of her work, helping to launch her career as an artist. By 1894, Valadon became the first female painter ever to be admitted to the Société National des Beaux-Arts and was thereby permitted to exhibit in their annual exhibition. This quick rise to critical recognition only serves as a testament to Valadon’s artistic talents.
Valadon’s journey to critical acclaim did not come without personal turmoil. In 1896, the artist married the Parisian stockbroker, Paul Mousis. Although this may have offered her the chance to paint without financial worries, she sold very little of her artwork during this period. In the early 1900s, Valadon’s son developed a mental illness, prompting her to neglect her own artistic career to train him to become an artist as a means of therapy; an intervention which would eventually see Maurice Utrillo gain critical reception as an artist himself. Her marriage to Mousis ultimately ended in divorce in the early 1900s, but it marked the beginning of an intense artistic period for Valadon and one in which her artistic career flourished, leading to exhibitions at the Salon d’Automne and Salon des Independents, as well as a retrospective of her work at the Bernier gallery in 1921.
Valadon’s artistic style was characterised by rich colours, unblended strokes of paint, and heavy black outlines of her sitters or objects. Although she was not confined to a particular subject matter, it is her candid portraits of women that stand out for their refusal to follow artistic convention. These unidealised representations of women engaged in mundane activities disrupted the ‘old master’ themes of bathing and reclining nudes by denying the viewer a voyeuristic pleasure of the female form. In Nude with a striped blanket (1921), the sitter casually sits on the bed, her legs stretched out in front of her as she reads the book to her side. In The Blue Room (1923), the woman appears relaxed as she lies on her bed in loosely fitting clothing, her slightly sunburned skin on show as she gazes off into the distance with a cigarette firmly nestled in her mouth. In Reclining Nude (1928), the woman stares directly at the viewer but covers her body, challenging the male gaze. These paintings highlight Valadon’s highly personalised style and their unflinching, refreshing depiction of women as subjects of their own reality.
In 1937, a year prior to her death, the French state purchased many of Valadon’s works, at last recognising her alongside the male artists for whom she had so long posed for. Valadon’s constant break with artistic convention may have upset social norms, but they established her as a bold, defiant artist, worthy of the recognition she received.