Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel
On ViewThe Barnes Foundation
September 26, 2021–January 9, 2022
That the unforgettably beautiful 18-year-old who modeled for Renoir’s 1883 Dance at Bougival (in Boston’s MFA) should turn out to be one of the great painters of the early 20th century is a puzzle designed to baffle any art historian of my generation. I studied modern art at the Courtauld Institute in the late 1960s and wrote my doctorate at Harvard in the 1970s without ever once giving a thought to Suzanne Valadon. It’s one of the many lessons in humility I’ve had since. In my defense, John Rewald’s canonical History of Impressionism (1961) only mentions her as the model for Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (among others) and notes without further comment that she was one of the “few intimate friends”1 with whom Degas would still engage in conversation by the 1890s. Rewald’s only reference to her painting—a single line in Post-Impressionism (1956)—notes that the 23-year-old Suzanne Valadon was “impressed” by the Gauguin exhibition at Volpini’s Grande Café in 1889 and that she later said, “when listing the decisive events of her artistic career, that she had felt ‘intrigued by the technique of Pont-Aven.’”2
Now, looking at the moving retrospective of Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel, beautifully curated by Nancy Ireson at The Barnes Foundation, I’m asking myself how I missed this. Paintings like her Blue Room of 1923, the 1928 Reclining Nude, and even such pre-war canvases as her 1909 Adam and Eve are startlingly, presciently modern. It’s the quality of the painting and the prophetic vision that stayed with me after I walked out of this exhibition.
“Marie-Clémentine” Valadon became “Maria” when she began a career modeling in 1879, at the age of 15. Puvis de Chavannes, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec all painted her repeatedly during the 1880s and all of them also became her lovers. Puvis was in his late fifties, Renoir in his forties, and Lautrec was born in 1864, only one year older than Valadon. It was allegedly Lautrec who gave her the nickname “Suzanna” in a telling reference to the Old Testament story of Susanna and the elders about two lascivious old men peeking through the bushes at a naked young bather.3 Although most of the discussion about Valadon centers on her liberated lifestyle rather than on her art, it’s her painting that merits serious discussion. Yet the two are not entirely separable because the brilliance of her work derives significantly from the uninhibited way she lived her life.
The critic Pierre du Colombier pointed to this in his review of her work in 1922: Suzanne Valadon “…had to escape from a daily struggle against necessity.” The objective was not theoretical, not a calculated effort to “break the prejudices of social order,”4 but rather a way of managing and at the same time embracing her daily reality, which she transformed into both the subject and style of her painting. The child of a desperately poor single mother who did cleaning and laundry in a run-down neighborhood up the hill in Montmartre, Valadon in her early teens worked as a waitress, a seamstress, she claimed to have performed briefly as a circus acrobat until a fall, she said, cut short her career; at 15 she began modeling for artists, which paid considerably more than any of those jobs. No one aspiring to a respectable middle-class marriage would undress for artists, but she took a defiantly pragmatic approach to life and even found pleasure in doing it well.
Valadon’s portraits of 1909 through 1932 deservedly made her famous and financially successful by the 1920s. Her body of work consists of a relatively small corpus of oil paintings and work on paper over a short career for a number of biographical reasons. Yet Adam and Eve, among her first oil paintings, already demonstrates the frank openness to immediate experience that distinguished her oeuvre. Valadon had met the young painter André Utter in 1909, fallen in love with him, and celebrated that new relationship in that painting, posing herself and Utter as the models. This may well be the first painting of a frontally nude man by a woman artist as well as one of the first full-length female nude self-portraits (she added the vine leaves over his genitals later to make the work more saleable in the 1920s). Here, she wraps her left arm around his back; he reaches behind her to hold and guide her right hand as she grasps the Edenic apple. Adam and Eve is a conventional subject, and the style is, at first glance, in line with works by established painters like Hans von Marées’s Young Men Under the Orange Trees (1880) and Gauguin’s 1899 Two Tahitian Women.
Nevertheless, Valadon’s Adam and Eve comes as a shock. It’s not the nudity or even the dark outlines, the flattened space, and the simplification of the forms, but rather the casual intimacy that surprises us: they lack any trace of guilt. Instead, the realism of Utter’s face, his evident expression of sexual desire, and the matter-of-fact presentation of pleasure and sensuality in her whole being must have taken viewers aback.
After a six-month affair in the first half of 1893 that left the composer Erik Satie heartbroken,5 she moved in with a middle-class businessman named Paul Mousis and married him three years later, buying her a house in the suburbs. In a pair of small paintings of 1909—Nude with a Mirror and Young Girl with Mirror—Valadon foreshadows the unique intimacy of Adam and Eve. Since Valadon moved back to Montmartre after meeting Utter and lost the appurtenances of her bourgeois household, the presence of her maid Caroline as a model in Young Girl with Mirror suggests that these two paintings predate the Adam and Eve. As Ireson notes in the catalogue,6 Nude with a Mirror was originally known as Spring, and Summer, mentioned in early reviews, seems likely to be Young Girl with Mirror. These titles, in turn, reinforce the impression that here Valadon chronicles the experience of a young girl’s awkward transition to womanhood. The ungainly posture (still reverberating with the influence of Valadon’s mentor Degas), the adolescent body, and the tentative self-awareness with one foot hesitantly sliding into the slipper in Summer (a traditional symbol for the loss of virginity), Valadon probes this moment of sexual awakening. “Toilette scenes were enormously popular at the time,” the art historian Martha Lucy writes in the exhibition catalogue, and yet “there is something different about Valadon’s approach.” She points to the “uncertain relationship with one’s own self-image.”7
The striking emotional directness in Valadon’s observation already sets her style apart in 1909. She embraced the lifestyle that presented itself to her in the bohemian art world of Montmartre in the 1880s. She gave birth at the age of 18 to a son of undisclosed paternity. An artist friend, the Catalan painter Miguel Utrillo, legitimized the boy with his own surname, even though he was likely not the child’s father. And all of this led her to create a style that also embraced her reality with a frankness that was unprecedented.
Valadon was self-taught but had exceptional natural talent and drive. She said that she began drawing obsessively at the age of nine8; artistically “gifted” children often do.9 She also learned from watching the great artists for whom she modeled and with mentors like Puvis de Chavannes, Renoir, Lautrec, and informal instruction from Degas, she had an extraordinary education that no formal training could have matched. By 1893, she had established a significant reputation for her drawings and was selling enough of them to support herself and her mother and young son Maurice. In 1894, Valadon exhibited drawings of children as the first woman admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She met Degas that year, and he not only bought some of her drawings but taught her etching techniques, critiqued her work, and introduced her to the vanguard dealer Ambrose Vollard who went on to publish her prints.
In 1901, Valadon’s 18-year-old son, Maurice Utrillo, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was repeatedly in trouble with the police, and in 1904 he was committed briefly to a psychiatric hospital. Valadon taught him to paint in order to give him an outlet. By the 1920s Utrillo had a career that eclipsed hers for his views of Montmartre, in a style derived from hers. In 1909 Valadon fell in love with André Utter, her son’s 23-year-old friend (she was 44). She jettisoned her middle-class marriage for Utter and married him in 1914 on the eve of his departure for the War. In 1917 he took a bullet close to the heart, and she went to be near him as he slowly recuperated in a hospital in Meyzieu, near Lyon. She painted lush landscapes during these years. The dark outlines, high horizon, contracted space, and the structure of imbricated planes in The Church and Tower of Mayzieu (Isères) from 1918 recall Cézanne. But unlike Cézanne’s cool structuralism, Valadon infused the painting with life.
The style of Valadon’s The Church and Tower of Mayzieu (Isères) foreshadows the twenties paintings of Utrillo. By the 1920s, Valadon herself began having financial success as well as critical acclaim.10 She showed at the Salon d’Automne and in the Salon des Indépendants, and in 1924, she and Maurice both signed on with the highly prestigious Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, receiving a very comfortable annual joint-contract of one million francs.11 Valadon focused again on still-lifes and portraits, including three nude self-portraits (in the catalogue but not in the show), painted with what Lisa Brice described as “unashamed directness and honesty.”12
In the first of these portraits (1917), she presents herself at age 52 looking directly, resolutely at the viewer. Yet having recently reunited with Utter, she also has the “youthful beauty of a person in love,”13 Brice notes. Seven years later, in 1924 (at the age of 59), she is “fierce and furious, she is ready to confront the outrage she knew a depiction of a naked, aging woman would provoke.” “After all,” Brice explains, “the raison d’être for the nude in French art was sexuality.”14 At 66 (1931), Valadon is no longer the beauty that Renoir painted 30 years earlier but an “affront to the male gaze.”15 Her strong chin is set, and her eyes look out with a steely expression, forthrightly encountering the reality of her age and life. By 1933, Valadon’s health had begun to decline. She separated from Utter, she developed mood swings (possibly from diabetes), and her painting trailed off. Finally, in April 1938 she died of a stroke, surrounded by her friends André Derain, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Yet even this ending speaks of a life in painting, an intellectual life, that continued to engage such peers.
The 1920s was a glorious decade of great paintings for Valadon, especially her portraits and female nudes. The hallmark of her work is her distinctive empathy for her subjects—especially female subjects—but one even feels it in her landscapes and still life compositions. She painted people, she said, “to get to know them.”16 She persistently refused to idealize the female body; instead, she identified with it. As Lucy writes of the 1928 Reclining Nude, the “gaze is both steady and self-aware, suggesting a cognizance of her body being on display.” Her cheeks are flushed, and she draws her arm up over her chest: “She is reacting...”17
Of all Valadon’s great portraits of women, The Blue Room (1923) states perhaps more starkly than any the new condition of womanhood in France after World War One and the self-assured vision that Valadon had achieved. The painting deliberately takes on Matisse’s expressionistic Blue Nude (1907) and his odalisques of the teens and twenties; Valadon’s model takes charge, replacing Matisse’s male gaze with a statement of the model’s personal self-possession. She lounges comfortably, not naked, but clothed in a soft camisole and boldly striped pants18, a cigarette dangling from her lips, a fashionable short haircut, and books at her feet. She is a modern intellectual, an audacious contrast with an image such as Picasso’s Woman in White, painted in the same year. The title of Jean Cocteau’s 1926 book, The Return to Order, captured a spirit of retrenchment after the shock of the First World War. Even a radical artist like Picasso seemed to seek reassurance in classicism and in transforming prewar Cubism’s experimental fragmentation into a staid compositional orderliness. By contrast, Valadon takes a risk. She stands out in her straightforward encounter with the present and gives form to a new way of being after 1918.
It was a gift to discover Valadon’s paintings at the Barnes, to experience a journey in painting that I had missed. They also opened up for me a fresh way of seeing her contemporaries and her times. We are all bound by one perspective or another and ask some important questions that are of our moment while simply not seeing others. We are trained to think methodically in order to understand what we find in the world. Yet our methods, which focus our skills of inquiry, also bind us in hierarchies that close us to other things. Great works of art have a wonderful way of shuffling the deck and helping us see things we didn’t see before. That was the special pleasure I found in Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel.