Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865–1938) was a trapeze acrobat, a painter, a sketcher and an artist model for many famous painters. She was self-taught and rose from the background of a poor, uneducated street child to one of most notable painters of that generation. Valadon is also famous for being the mother of the French artist Maurice Utrillo.
Montmartre & Life in the Exhilarating Circus
Valadon was born as Marie Clémentine Valadon, an illegitimate child to a working-class and poor, unmarried maid. In her early years, they moved to the poor part of Paris, Montmartre.
Montmartre, back then, was a village of local folks, prostitutes, pimps and artists, writers and noisy upstarts who wrote poetry or music or manifestos. Down in the streets of Pigalle or high up in Montmartre, the artists’ eccentric behavior, erratic hours and street parties were a usual occurrence day and night. This atmosphere became the perfect foundation for Valadon’s artistic future.
Valadon drew obsessively from a very young age, preferring to sketch the world around her to the strict convent school. However, she needed to leave school early to help her mother financially.
Against the dull backdrop of her mother’s dreary and difficult life, and enchanted with the lively, glittery circus life, Valadon decided to work as a trapeze artist in the circus. She loved the circus life. However, her dream in the circus was shattered when she fell with a serious injury and was forced to give it up. During her recovery, Valadon started drawing again.
Many decades later, and after she became a successful painter, Valadon reminisces that she would never have willingly left the circus if not for the injury!
Valadon- the Artists’ Model & Lover
Valadon always loved painting and drawing. She yearned to be a painter. However, without finances, she knew that the closest she could get to the art world was by modeling for artists.
Artists met their models through friends and congregated in the guinguettes and cafes. An enterprising young lady in need of employment might plant herself in a cafe and ‘interview’ prospective employers.
Valadon was a very attractive young lady. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, who was 40 years her senior and a well known painter, noticed her. She ended up modeling for him for over seven years & became his lover, an acceptable norm of an artist’s model in those times.
Suzanne Valadon took advantage of this situation and meticulously studied his painting methods and drawing techniques over those years.
Valadon & the Impressionists
In addition, Valadon posed for Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Jean-Louis Forain. She was probably their lovers as well. From each painter, she learned more and gained more experience of the art world.
Valadon also spent her evenings in the nightclubs frequented by artists, poets and writers. She met the handsome Spaniard, Miguel Utrillo and the two became close. Even after Utrillo left Paris, they stayed in touch. Valadon claims that they were never lovers.
Suzanne Valadon became pregnant two years later. Miguel Utrillo allowed Valadon to use his surname for her son and she named her son, Maurice Utrillo. It was never clear who the real father was. It could have been Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Renoir, Forain or someone else perhaps???
Valadon’s mum looked after the grandson, Maurice Utrillo, when she went back to work. She met Toulouse-Lautrec and became his model and mistress. It was with Toulouse-Lautrec, that Suzanne Valadon felt most comfortable to show her drawings and paintings. Lautrec was so impressed with her work, that he showed them to his friend, Edgar Degas.
Toulouse-Lautrec also suggested to Valadon to change her name from Marie Clémentine to Suzanne, which she did.
Degas Boosts Valadon’s Confidence as a Painter
Edgar Degas and Valadon developed a life-long friendship, despite the fact that Degas was a moody and difficult man. However, regardless of their differences in their age and background, they were both very fond of each other. Degas not only mentored Valadon but also boosted her confidence and bought some of her paintings.
With Degas’s approval of her work, Suzanne Valadon began to take her career in painting more seriously. Her favorite model was her son, Maurice.
Over the years Valadon had many lovers, including Erik Satie who she dumped for a wealthy stockbroker Paul Mousis.
Valadon’s Marriage Allows her to Pursue Her Dream
With her marriage to the wealthy Paul Mousis, Suzanne Valadon could finally abandon modeling and work as a full-time artist. However, marriage and wealth did not bring her happiness. Valadon felt stifled.
Her life was also in turmoil trying to cope with her alcoholic son, Maurice Utrillo. She tries to help him with his emotional turbulence, by encouraging him to channel his destructive energies into painting.
Valadon eventually returns to Montmartre. At the age of 44 she meets the 23-year-old André Utter, her son’s friend. Despite the age difference, the two fell deeply in love. Mousis divorces her. Through her young lover, she meets the new generation of artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, and others.
This later stage becomes her most productive period of her career. Her happiness and confidence grows, and she works with a broader palette of colors and paints larger canvases.
Valadon has her first solo exhibition in 1911 at the age of 46. She soon becomes an acknowledged artist and gains success during the 1920s.
Suzanne Valadon was very aware of the current artistic trends from her social circles in Montmartre. However, she does not commit to any particular style or movement. She paints still lifes, portraits, flowers, and landscapes (noted for their strong composition and bright, vibrant colors) but her most famous subjects are her female nudes.
Valadon’s Raw & Provocative Nudes
She painted her nudes as working-class women, with imperfect bodies, heavy features, relaxed postures and comfortable with their nudity. Her style reflected herself and her past. It was raw and blunt. She never inflated or glorified her subjects, but painted them exactly as she saw them. She conveyed an affinity towards the models she painted. They were the subjects of their own reality, not merely objects of admiration for the observer.
The male art critics often had a difficult time seeing beyond her gender and unconventional personal life. Yet Valadon persisted in her own way, never conforming to what was expected of her.
Suzanne Valadon’s Legacy
Whatever her early indiscretions, Suzanne Valadon immersed herself into life’s pleasures and used her talents wisely. Her determination to succeed as an artist in her own right, as a woman and without any access to formal training, is what makes her story an important one to remember.
At 72, she died at the easel—quite literally doing what she loved, surrounded by her friends André Derain, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. She is buried in the Parisian cemetery of Saint-Ouen. .
Suzanne Valadon said before her death:
“My work…is finished and the only satisfaction I gain from it is that I have never surrendered. I have never betrayed anything that I believed in.”
All in all, Suzanne Valadon’s artworks total to over 475 paintings, nearly 275 drawings, and 31 etchings. Unfortunately, many works were lost or destroyed over the years.
Where to view Suzanne Valadons Art
Valadon’s works are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago and other notable art museums around the world.
In Paris, you can see her works & follow her footsteps at:
- Centre Pompidou – showcasing a large collection of her works
- The studio on Rue Cortot. This is where she lived and worked. It is now part of the Museum of Montmartre. This lovely museum is located on a quiet street behind Sacré Coeur. It enables a glimpse into the former workspace of this determined woman and an intrinsic part of Montmartre’s extraordinary life.
- The National Museum of Modern Art in Paris also exhibits a few of her paintings
- Petit Palais exhibits one Valadon painting
- Her son is buried in the lovely Montmartre cemetery, where you will find quite a few other notable celebs.
Susan Valadon’s fascinating story is definitely worth reading about!!
Check out the two art historical fiction novels written about Valadon against the backdrop of 19th century Paris in the Belle.