Suzanne Valadon - The Mistress of Montmartre
Girl Braiding Her Hair
French artist Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938)
was an artist's model before becoming a respected painter herself.
Part of a circle of artists living and working in
Paris's Montmartre neighborhood at the turn of twentieth century,
Valadon was one of the most notable female artists of the period.
She is also remembered for her many love affairs
and as the mother of prominent French painter Maurice Utrillo.
Valadon and her son
Suzanne Valadon was born on September 23, 1865,
in the small town of Bessines, located in northeastern France.
Her mother, Madeleine Valadon, worked as a sewing maid;
the identity of her father was not known.
At the age of five, Valadon relocated to Paris with her mother.
She attended a convent school for a few years before
taking a job in a milliner's workshop at age 11.
Valadon also worked as a funeral wreath maker,
a vegetable seller, and a waitress while still a child.
Valadon with her mother
When she was a teenager, she befriended some artists
living in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, a bustling artist's community.
These artists helped Valadon get a job as an acrobat at the Mollier circus.
In March of 1880, she fell from a trapeze while practicing her act and injured her back.
After several weeks she essentially recovered, but remained unable
to perform in a circus for the remainder of her life due to the injury.
However, her brief stint with the circus remained one of her fondest memories.
After Valadon recovered from her back injury in 1880,
she cought the eye of painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.
This began her career as an artist's model.
For the next seven years she posed for several of Puvi's paintings
and was presumed to have been sexually involved with him.
the career of model was at that time a somewhat scandalous one,
the employers assumed the right to make love to their girls.
Valadon also worked as a model, from 1880 - 1883,
for several of the most important Impressionist painters of her day,
including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (who gave her paint lessons),and is known to have had affairs with the latter two.
Valadon and Eugene Pierre Lestringuez, by Renoir, 1883
Dance at Bougival with Paul Lhoteby Renoir, 1883
Portrait by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
As an artist's model, Suzanne Valadon became an active member
of the artistic community of Montmartre
and became a regular at the famed tavern Lapin-Agile
as well as the early cabaret Le Chat Noir.
During this time in her life, Valadon made a name for herself
as a feisty, vivacious girl, known fur stunts such as sliding down the banister
at a popular club while wearing only a mask.
In 1881, age of 16, she began a relationship with Spaniard Miguel Utrillo y Morlius,
who owned the Auberge du Clou, a tavern frequented by the residents,
shop owners, workers, and artists of Montmartre.
On December 26, 1883, Valadon gave birth
on to an illegitimate son, named him Maurice Valadon.
Valadon herself seemed uncertain as to who the father of her child was;
but several other possible fathers have been suggested,
including Puvis, Renoir, and another young Paris artist named Boissy.
She gave her young son to her mother to raise, returning to work as a model.
Utrillo formally acknowledged the boy as his own in 1891
After being taught to paint and mentored by his mother,
as Maurice Utrillo, he became one of Montmartre's best-known artist.
During the mid- to late- 1880's, Valadon produced many drawings
and pastels of people and of street scenes.
Her artistic endeavors were assisted by Toulouse-Lautrec,
for whom she often modeled and with whom she had a lengthy affair
and went through the bars and taverns of Paris along with other fellow painters,
he also painted her as the subject of The Hangover.
Valadon worked to hone her skills by observing the techniques
of the artists who painted her, becoming a fully self-taught artist over the years.
One of her best known works,
a pastel called Self-Portrait date from 1883
In the early 1890's she befriended Edgar Degas who,
impressed with her bold line drawings and fine paintings,
purchased her work and encouraged her efforts.
She remained one of Degas' closest friends until his death.
All of her early works were drawings executed in pencil or pastel.
In the early 1890's she commenced working oils, producing her first paintings.
One of the first oils, dating from 1893, was of composer Erik Satie.
Valadon and Satie had an intense six-month love affair in 1893.
A smitten Satie proposed marriage after their first night together but she turned him down.
For Satie, the intimacy of his relationship with Valadon
would be the only one of its kind in his life, leaving him at its end, he said,
with "nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness."
Portrait by Amadeo Modigliani
After the affair with Satie ended,
Valadon's involvement with Montmartre stockbroker Paul Mousis intensified,
and the pair married in 1896. This marriage provided Valadon with financial stability,
enabling her to quit modeling and dedicate herself to drawing and painting full-time.
Valadon's unique style became more apparent once she had the freedom to practice
her craft unfettered by financial concerns. Because Valadon was untrained,
she approached art with a different perspective than the other artists of her day.
Following her marriage to Mousis, Valadon left the city for a home in the country.
Here, she tried to balance her new duties as conventional wife with those of a working artist.
In the late 1890's Valadon produce less work of artistic value,
and made only a few sales, primarily to fellow artists.
Valadon's son, Maurice, did not adjust well to country life.
He completed primary school outside of Paris, but as a teenager attended school in Montmartre.
He did well with his studies, but began to develop a problem with alcohol.
Valadon turned her attention to her son's well being, neglecting her fledgling artistic career;
however, Maurice became progressively more unstable.
In the early 1900's, she began encouraging Maurice to paint as a means of therapy.
Maurice exhibited artistic talent, but his mental problems did not cease,
and in 1904 he was committed to a mental hospital for treatment of alcoholism and other problems.
Valadon continued his art lessons after his release a few months later.
Maurice Utrillo - Portrait of his mother
Portrait of son Maurice, her mother (his Grandmother) and his dog
by Suzanne Valadon, 1910
Valadon's relationship with husband Mousis was marred by problems nearly from the start.
In 1906 Valadon met a friend of her son's, Andre Utter, who was himself a young painter.
Utter was intrigued by Valadon, and three years later the two began an affair.
Valadon was by then 44 to Utter's 23.
Prodded by Utter, Valadon returned more seriously to her art,
producing a significant number of paintings for the first time in years.
As the relationship between Valadon and Utter intensified, she at first tried to hide it from her husband.
However, she became careless and Mousis found out, breaking off the marriage.
He officially divorced Valadon in March of 1910.
Suzanne Valadon - Self-Portrait with her family, 1910
After the dissolution of her marriage, Valadon continued to paint in earnest,
as well as producing a lesser number of drawings and engravings.
In 1910 she painted her first landscape and her first nude self-portrait.
Despite these advances, Valadon was beginning to be overshadowed by
her tumultuous artist son and his contemporaries, including Picasso.
Over the next few years, Valadon, her lover, and her son lived together
in the Montmartre on the proceeds of their artwork.
When World War I erupted in 1914, Utter volunteered for military service.He and Valadon married so that she could receive an allowance from the military as a soldier's wife.
Utrillo, Valadon and Utter, 1919
1917 Utter received a bullet wound and Valadon traveled to the country to be closer to him.
She remained outside of Paris for some time, painting landscapes.
After the war ended in 1918, both Utter and Valadon returned to the city.
Utter marketed his works, as well as those of Valadon and Maurice Utrillo,
most successfully those of the latter.
Valadon, Utter and Utrillo
However, Valadon had reached her peak as an artist.
She produced paintings and drawings at a rapid pace,
and in 1920 was elected to the Salon d'Automne.
For the remainder of her career, Valadon would show frequently
to critical acclaim but only moderate sales.
Her increasingly unstable son's artworks consistently overshadowed
those of his mother commercially.
In 1924 Valadon signed a contract with the art gallery Bernheim-Jeune,
enabling her to again live in financial comfort. She purchased a country estate
called Saint-Bernard and spent much of her time there.
However, tensions among Valadon, Utter, and her son Utrillo continued,
fueled somewhat by Utrillo's continuing dominance professionally.
By the end of the 1920s, Utter had taken up drinking and womanizing.
Valadon continued to produce works, showing at a major retrospective in 1929.
Many works from this period depict her beloved pets.
Through the 1930s Valadon's health slowly declined.
In 1935 her son married and left his mother's home.
Utter had also moved out, although he and Valadon never divorced.
Her life continued to be filled with friends, visitors, and art despite the exodus of her family.
On April 7, 1938, Suzanne Valadon was painting at her easel
when she unexpectedly suffered a stroke.
She died at the hospital just hours later, at the age of 72,
and was interred in the Cimetiere de Saint-Quen in Paris.
Among those in attendance at her funeral were her friends and colleagues,Andre Derain, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque.
Suzanne Valadon and one of her cats
by Marcel Leprin
Raminou assis sur une draperie
by Suzanne Valadon, 1920
Suzanne Valadon painted still life, portraits, floral art, and landscapes
that are noted for their strong composition and vibrant colors.
She was, however, best known for her candid female nudes.
A perfectionist, she worked on some of her oil paintings for up to 13 years before showing them.
A free spirit, she wore a corsage of carrots,
kept a goat at her studio to "eat up her bad drawings",
and fed caviar (rather than meat) to her "good Catholic" cats on Fridays.
Truly 'One of a kind'
Today, some of her works may be seen at the
Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris,
the Museum of Grenoble,
and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
A novel based on her life by Elaine Todd Koren was published in 2001,
entitled Suzanne: of Love and Art.
An earlier novel by Sarah Baylis, entitled Utrillos Mother,
was first published in England and later in the United States.
Timberlake Wertenbaker's play "The Line" (2009) traces the relationship between Valadon and Degas.
Book Reference: Rose, June (1999) Suzanne Valadon: the Mistress of MontmartreNew York: St. Martin's. ISBN 0-312-19921-X