Suzanne Valadon (French, 1938)

Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865–1938) was a painter and artists’ model, known as one of the most successful female artists of her generation and the mother of French artist Maurice Utrillo. As the daughter of an unmarried maid, Valadon had a rather solitary childhood. She lived in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, where she began working as a model for artists who patronized the cabaret called the Lapin Agile, such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Jean-Louis Forain. Valadon had taught herself to draw around the age of nine. Fellow artists, including Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, responded encouragingly to Valadon’s work. In 1896, her marriage to Paul Mousis enabled Valadon to leave behind her career as an artist’s model, and by 1909, she was painting and working as a full-time artist. Her first solo exhibition took place in 1911, and she reached the height of her celebrity and success during the 1920s. Valadon frequently painted reclining figures in ornately decorated interiors, as in Blue Room (1923). 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 Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.


In 1865 in Bessines-sur-Gartempe, Haute-Vienne, France, Marie-Clémentine Valadon was born. Her mother was an unmarried laundress and her father was probably a young man who worked at the nearby mill and was killed soon after Marie-Clémentine’s birth. Madeleine, her mother, moved herself and her baby to Montmartre to escape the scandal. There Madeleine worked as a char-woman, and Marie-Clémentine grew up very much on her own. While in her early teens, she was apprenticed to a dressmaker in Paris, and soon after she joined an acrobatics group. She was happy there, but following a fall that nearly killed her, she had to give up performing with the group. At the tender age of 15 she went to the Place Pigalle, where a neighbour had led her, in order to become an artist’s model. The established artist, Puvis de Chavannes, immediately spotted her - he was one of the many Montmartre artists who went there to take their pick of scores of wretched men, women and children who gathered every Sunday hoping to become models. The 56 year old artist was understandably attracted to the young girl, she was pre-maturely voluptuous, with “cognac-coloured” hair, stunning blue eyes and an “infectious” sense of fun. Puvis used her both as the model for his ‘neo-classical’ heroines and as his lover, but when he saw some of her early drawings, he pronounced “you are a model, not an artist!” His lecherous behaviour was well known throughout Montmartre and, as a wealthy man, he could buy anyone of the desperate ‘models’ at any price. This ‘relationship’ between model and artist was a condition of life in Montmartre at that time.
After being dismissed by Chavannes, Valadon next modelled for Renoir, for whom she portrayed the beautiful innocent in some of his most notable works, like the Dance at Bougival of 1883 and The Bathers. Valadon liked Renoir no better than Puvis, describing him as “all brushes and no heart,” but she still carried on an affair with him. She became pregnant that year aged 17 and although Renoir was a suspect, there were many others, including an unknown dilletante and Bohemian named Boissy. The baby was called Maurice Valadon, but later became known as Maurice Utrillo.
Valadon began to model for Toulouse-Lautrec after the birth of Maurice. He was different; kinder than the others had been to her, he saw her drawings and encouraged her to do more. He also told her that she must change her name from Marie-Clémentine to Suzanne, a name that could be respected and remembered.
In 1893 she succeeded in meeting and impressing Degas. On the advice of Lautrec, she took her drawings and showed them to the reclusive genius. It is said that Degas took one look at her drawings of little Maurice and said, “you are one of us!” He then bought 17 of these drawings and hung them among his Cézannes, Gauguins and Van Goghs.
Suzanne Valadon had a complicated life… Her son also became a brilliant painter - unfortunately, he was also one of Montmartre’s most notorious drunkards. After a long and tumultuous relationship, Valadon married Paul Mousis, a well-to-do lawyer with many Montmartre connections. It was not to last, and when she was 44, Maurice introduced her to his friend André Utter, another aspiring painter. He was 23 and despite the difference in age, they formed a relationship that would cause her great happiness and sorrow for the rest of her life. Maurice, too, would plague her, he was constantly in and out of institutions for mental illness and more often, drunkenness. Through all of this we still get a sense of Suzanne’s spirit. Though she was not the best of mothers, she was a truly gifted artist. Her paintings are brutally honest, they force us to react to their boldness and their unschooled intensity. She still cannot be classified in one group, or as the follower of any particular artist; she taught herself and thereby formed a style all her own.
Suzanne Valadon did not lead an easy life and only now is she gaining the respect that she so richly deserves as one of the great painters of the twentieth century. Sadly, her son’s life and reputation has, in many ways, overshadowed her own, yet from what we have come to learn of her personality, she probably would not begrudge him even that. Her work is exhibited in many of the finest museums and galleries throughout the world.