Edited by Nancy Ireson

Paul Holberton Publishing. 159 pages. £35. ISBN 978-1-913645-13-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Establishing a reputation in the art world has never been an easy process, especially for women artists. And it must have been particularly difficult for a woman aspiring to be a painter to succeed in the competitive and male-dominated art world of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Paris. That Suzanne Valadon, despite coming from a poverty-stricken background and having had no formal art training, became a talented and critically-acknowledged painter is a remarkable story of natural skill allied with perseverance.

Valadon was born in 1865 and christened Marie-Clémentine Valadon. She was brought up in Paris by her mother, and by the age of fourteen was employed at a series of low-paid jobs, such as a waitress and a seamstress. She was rumoured to have worked as an acrobat in a circus at one point, though this has never been proven, and Valadon was not averse to embroidering the facts of her life when interviewed in later years. One of her occupations involved delivering laundry around Montmartre, including to the artist, Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s said that he nicknamed her “Susanna” after the Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders. Did this happen after Valadon began to model for Lautrec, and possibly became his lover? It may have been his oblique comment on older artists viewing a naked young girl.

One of the Lautrec paintings reproduced in this book is a splendid portrait of a twenty-year old Valadon. But it’s relevant to point to Lautrec’s “The Hangover” which shows a somewhat bedraggled woman seated at a table with a glass and a bottle of wine in front of her. In other words, she was a model and Lautrec could make use of her as he wanted to obtain an effect on canvas. But, in contrast, there is “Young Woman at a Table”, with a tidier and fresher-faced female (modelled by Valadon) gazing into space.

Lautrec wasn’t the only Parisian painter Valadon posed for.  She modelled for Puvis de Chavannes and Pierre-August Renoir, and it’s more than likely had sexual relations with both. Whatever else she talked about she didn’t ever divulge who she had slept with. It’s perhaps true to say that it is the paintings by Renoir that are best-known in terms of the presence of Valadon. Catherine Hewitt’s biography of Valadon, Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon (Icon Books, 2017) has his “Dance at Bougival” on its front cover. And it has been reproduced widely on calendars and posters.

Lesser-known but striking in their way are the Spanish painter Santiago Rusinol’s “Laughing Girl” (1894) and Jean Eugene Clary’s “Portrait of Suzanne Valadon Age 20” (1885). Both are in the book, and I have to say that I was immediately taken with the charm of the Rusinol. It must have been painted towards the end of her career as a model. She gave it up when she married a businessman, Paul Mousis, in 1896. The laughing girl is leaning forward and looking directly at the viewer, as she must have looked directly at Rusinol, and the look on her face is infectious. The Clary catches her only in near-profile, but is an attractive fashionable painting.

How did Valadon get started on her own career as an artist? She had been drawing since the age of nine, though without any sort of encouragement. It was only when she encountered Lautrec, watched him working, and then showed him some of her drawings, that matters began to improve. Lautrec is said to have commented to a friend, “She arrived at this result without taking a lesson from anybody, ever, eh? It’s marvellous”. And another friend told him to show the drawings to Degas. He had a reputation as a harsh critic, but became a supporter of Valadon’s work. It needs to be recorded, too, that she took note of Renoir’s use of colour when she posed for him.

In 1893, when Valadon was eighteen, she gave birth to a son who was to become the painter, Maurice Utrillo, famous for his evocative pictures of the streets of Montmartre. He was also to become notorious for his drinking. Valadon never acknowledged who was the father. All that is known is that, in 1891, the Spanish painter, Miguel Utrillo, gave Maurice his surname, though it’s unlikely that he was his actual father. Nancy Ireson says: “ Nineteenth century men often viewed female models as easy conquests. Valadon did not speak about her intimate relationships with those for whom she posed, but it is likely that the boundaries between will and obligation were blurred”.

Valadon’s marriage to Paul Mousis was over by 1910, and she had, in fact, started an affair with André Utter, a much younger man who was a friend of her son. And it was around this time that, because she was making only a little money from the sale of drawings and prints, Valadon began to paint seriously in oils. Her 1912 “Family Portrait” focuses on herself, her elderly mother, a confident-looking Utter, and a somewhat morose-looking Utrillo. The painter is central to the picture and her firm presence suggests that she is the one who holds the family together in more ways than one. To which Ireson wryly comments: “Consequently, while Valadon’s early canvases are in many ways progressive, they also perpetuate pre-existing notions of how women should appear in paintings. A woman cares for her partner, son, and mother, she is at the heart of the home”.

In an interesting essay by Lisa Brice the question of nude representations of women is discussed. Valadon painted various self-portraits, including three (1917, 1924, 1931), all of which show her bare-breasted. Following Brice’s analysis of each painting, we see Valadon in 1917, when “there is a toughness that can be felt through the treatment of the subject and the handling of the paint”. Despite the death of her friend Degas, problems with Utrillo’s alcoholism, and Utter being wounded during the Great War, the painting, in Brice’s words, emphasises her “femininity”. By contrast, the 1924 portrait  “shows a masculine body with shrunken breasts and pronounced neck muscles”. Valadon is “ready to confront the outrage she knew a depiction of a naked, aged woman would provoke – after all, the raison d’etre for the nude in French art was sexuality”.

It’s easy to understand what Brice is protesting against when one considers what a hostile critic in 1929 said of Valadon’s work: “If Suzanne Valadon has painted hideous shrews in tones of great vulgarity, it is because she wants to. That is the most disturbing thing. Apart from two or three works, the most recent, like the large bathers which are normal and healthy if not graceful, her female nude studies are treated as caricatures…..As for her flower paintings, the charm of their colour, their fragility, is always spoilt by a detail, a basket or ladder, placed there to look unpleasant. Does it spring from her poverty or her spite?” (as quoted by June Rose in Mistress of Montmartre: A Life of Suzanne Valadon (Richard Cohen Books, 1998).

A 1927 self-portrait has bright colours, and Valadon’s expression might indicate a sadness, or discontent that only a painting can suggest. Contrast it to a photograph of her with Utrillo and Utter, taken in 1926, where she appears happy enough. And, a few years later, she has “calmed herself” and “looks ahead with dignified resignation” in the 1931 self-portrait.  All of which brings me to Martha Lucy’s assertion that Valadon “defied long-held conventions for presenting the female body as flawless, sensual, and passive”. Elderly women had been portrayed on canvas in the past, but rarely, if ever, in a manner that openly pictured the way in which age affects the body.

It is the female nude that is heavily featured, though some of Valadon’s early drawings do involve the young Maurice Utrillo. But she additionally painted landscapes, still-life canvases, and portraits. I recall exhibitions in 2001 at the Musée Utrillo-Valadon in Sannois, and in 2009 at the Pinacothèqhe  in Paris, which featured both Valadon and Utrillo, and finding her work, which seemed to have a greater variety than his, much more appealing. It’s difficult now to remember in detail exactly what was in those exhibitions. Utrillo’s pictures of the streets of Montmartre admittedly had an attractive quality in terms of postcards and calendars, and the myth of Montmartre, but Valadon, in my memory, came across as more-assertive, original, and colourful.

From a personal point of view I find Valadon’s paintings of more interest than her drawings, though I accept that it’s necessary to see both in context. Artists develop over time and operate in different areas as their ideas formulate. There is, also, the practical question of earning a living with one’s work, and there’s no doubt that it was necessary for Valadon to make money. Her impoverished upbringing had hardened her view of the world. She was not an idealist with a private income which enabled her to choose what to do: “in practical terms, her family depended on her income. She began to exhibit in the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants, and she promoted her work to art dealers”.

She started to achieve some recognition for her work, though this mostly seems to have occurred post-1918, and it can only be assumed that the 1914-18 War had interfered with both her activities as an artist and responses to them. The chronology of exhibitions featuring Valadon lists nothing between 1914 and 1924, though there is a critical evaluation of her “Black Venus” which was shown in the 1919 Salon d’Automne.

The 1920s and 1930s saw Valadon earning both critical and financial success. She could afford to buy property, live comfortably, and travel, but by 1933 she “suffered from mood swings” and eventually gave up painting, though her 1936 “Still Life with Herring” and the 1937 “Portrait of Madame Maurice Utrillo (Lucie Valore)” indicate that it must have been a gradual process. Utrillo had married Valore in 1935, and it is suggested that Valadon did not get along too well with her daughter-in-law.   The relationship with Utter had broken down, and in June Rose’s words : “Utter had become a semi-detached member of the family, coming in and out as he pleased”. He had a string of mistresses and was not averse to gossiping about Valadon and her problems to members of the Parisian art community. 

Suzanne Valadon died in 1938. She had been successful in her lifetime, though she was entering into her fifties when critics began to notice her and her work sold. To quote June Rose again: “When she was a beautiful young woman, the art critics had applauded, somewhat reluctantly, the willpower and independence that had enabled her to become an artist. But the middle-aged aesthetes who ruled the Paris art scene in the 1920s found Valadon’s lack of education and defiance of etiquette distasteful, and the emotional whirlpool in which she floundered an embarrassment”. 

Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel accompanies an exhibition which was held at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia from September 26, 2021, to January, 9, 2022, and will transfer to Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen on February 24, 2022 to August 1, 2022. It is effectively a catalogue of the exhibition, and is well-illustrated. There is a useful bibliography, and a selection of “Texts on Suzanne Valadon”, one of which is an entertaining interview with her from 1921, in which she talks informatively about her years working as a model for various artists.