Monday, November 7, 2016

1865-1938: Suzanne Valadon, French

Suzanne Valadon was one of the great painters of the early 20th century. She is usually classified as a Post-Impressionist, but she was never confined within a tradition. She rose from the background of a poor, uneducated street child to become one of the most notable artists of the period.

While her unconventional life – set in the Paris milieu that included some of the most famous artists, musicians, and writers of modern times – is certainly the stuff of legend, Suzanne Valadon’s 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.

Background: Suzanne, whose given name was Marie-Clémentine Valadon, came from the most unfortunate of backgrounds. Her mother, Madeleine, was unmarried and her father was unknown. Madeleine was employed as a live-in seamstress by a well-to-do family in a small town near Limoges, France, for 13 years, a fairly cushy job. But after her child was born, she was terminated. She took the baby and headed for Paris, making a complete break with the past.

Madeleine and Marie-Clémentine settled into lodgings at the base of Montmartre, which was the center of the art community at that time. Madeleine failed to find employment as a seamstress, and she had to settle for a job as a scrub-woman, cleaning floors. The concierge of her lodgings looked after baby Marie-Clementine.

After a few years of economic struggle, Madeleine despaired and began to drink heavily. She became increasingly morose, lost interest in life, and resented having to care for her daughter.

When Marie-Clementine was 9, Madeleine had her apprenticed as a seamstress at a fashion house. She stayed there for 3 years. She then took a variety of odd jobs, including working at a livery stable. This led to a job as an acrobat with a circus when she was 15. This job ended with a fall that injured her back the following year.

Training: It is commonly believed that Marie-Clementine taught herself how to draw at the age of nine.

While recuperating from her fall, she decided to devote her life to art, a seemingly impossible dream for a working-class woman in 1881. There were few female painters at the time; all were from the upper-middle class, and had the money for lessons and leisure to pursue their hobby. Marie-Clémentine had no money for art classes and no women to look up to.

She trained herself by studying the work of the artists she was modeling for, and by the guidance that they offered her. In her free time she sketched avidly in pencil and charcoal.

Toulouse-Lautrec took an interest in her early drawings, and even bought a couple of sketches.

Private life: Marie-Clémentine grew up in the street, mingling with the lowest level of society, and it wouldn't have been surprising if she had turned to prostitution, especially since she was considered very attractive at the age of 17. Instead, she took a job that was considered a slightly higher a form of prostitution—modeling for artists. At that time, it was generally assumed that sex would be part of a modeling assignment. But it appears that Suzanne bargained her sexual favors for art lessons from the celebrated artists who painted her. Moreover, this type of interaction tended to blossom into romance, and she apparently had an open affair with Renoir, among others.

In 1882, when Marie-Clémentine was 17, she became the model and live-in lover of artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, who was 57 at the time, and still a bachelor. The relationship lasted for 6 months. She then moved back with Madeleine and returned to day work as a model.

When she modeled for Renoir in 1883 (he was 42 and married), the two openly strolled the streets of Montmartre together and nobody was in any doubt that they were lovers. This was a short romance, but he continued to use her as a model for several important works.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Dance at Bougival, 1883
MFA, Boston

When she was 18, in 1883, Valadon gave birth to an illegitimate son, Maurice. She was coy about the father's identity, and may not have been sure herself. After his birth, she left the baby in Madeleine's care, with the help of a maid, while she returned to modeling. It seems she had no other choice, but this was a bad idea for Maurice because Madeleine was an alcoholic. Maurice started to have tantrums and fits as a child, and the only way she knew how deal with him was to give him watered down wine.

Maurice hated school, and he would lapse into spells of depression followed by bouts of violence. Suzanne saw this as weakness, since at his age, she had been completely fearless.

In 1887 she met Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, when he moved into the building where she lived. He liked to entertain local artists and members of the literary set in his studio. She helped him with these parties and became his unofficial hostess. He suggested that she change her name to Suzanne, after the Biblical story of Susanna and Elders, because it sounded classier.

It was at Toulouse-Lautrec's suggestion that she showed some of her drawings to Edgar Degas in 1887. He recognized her talent immediately. They became good friends. During their many meetings she would show him her latest work, which he would critique. She would bring him the gossip from Montmartre, as he was too ill to go out at this time. They remained good friends until his death. There is no suggestion that they had a romantic relationship.

When she was 23, in 1888, Suzanne got involved with a wealthy young banker, Paul Mousis. He was immediately besotted with her and proposed marriage within a few weeks. She turned him down, but agreed to become his lover. This gave her some financial stability.

In 1891, when Maurice was 4, Suzanne got one of her former lovers, Miguel Utrillo, who was from Spain, to sign a document naming himself as father and giving Maurice his name.

In 1892, Suzanne's wealthy lover decided to return to his former bourgeois lifestyle and bought a house in a small village north of Paris to be a weekend retreat for himself, Suzanne and her family.

Suzanne's mother Madeleine was now in her late sixties; she suffered from rheumatism and was still addicted to alcohol and spent much of her time in a semi-drunken haze. Her one great pleasure in life was her grandson, Maurice. Maurice still suffered from mood swings and uncontrollable rages; she still plied him with wine to calm him down. By his teenage years he had become addicted to absinthe.

In 1893 Suzanne began a short-lived but famous affair with composer Erik Satie, a composer who was one year younger than she. He is said to have proposed after their first night together. She moved in next door, and he became obsessed with her. When she left 6 months later, he is said to have been devastated.

Portrait of Erik Satie, 1892

Suzanne resumed her relationship with Paul Moussis and in 1896 they were married.

Suzanne with Andre and Maurice, 1920
In 1901, just before Maurice's 19th birthday, it became necessary to commit him to an asylum for 3 months. When he returned, he was off drink but listless and remote. This is when Suzanne persuaded him to take up art as a hobby and taught him the basic skills. Within 2 years he was spending most of his time in her studio, and had completed 150 works. But the rages returned, causing him to start drinking again.

In 1909 Maurice met a handsome young artist named André Utter. They became good friends, even sharing lodgings. When André and Suzanne met—she was 44 and he was 23—they were immediately attracted to each other. Suzanne began hanging out at their lodgings, and she and André became lovers. Eventually she went to live with her lover and her son, and Paul divorced her.

For a few years, Suzanne, André, and Maurice lived together on the proceeds of their artwork. They moved to a larger apartment with a studio that soon became a meeting place for young artists and poets.

Suzanne Valadon
Family Portrait, 1912

When World War I erupted in 1914, André volunteered for military service. He and Suzanne married so that she could receive an allowance from the military as a soldier's wife.

In 1915, while André was away, Madeleine died, and Maurice was again placed in an asylum for 3 months.

In 1917, André was wounded in battle. Suzanne rushed to the hospital, and they had a joyous reunion. She spent 3 months tending to his every need.

André was released from the army in 1920 and return to Paris to live with Suzanne and Maurice. Suzanne was 54, and her looks were beginning to fade; André was 36. Suzanne went to extremes to retain his attentions, but they quarreled intensely. By the end of the 1920s, Utter had taken up drinking and womanizing. Suzanne became ever more demanding and eccentric.

Through the 1930s Valadon's health slowly declined. In 1935 she entered the hospital for complications of diabetes and kidney dysfunction. That same year, Maurice married and left his mother's home. Utter had also moved out, although he and Valadon never divorced.

After the exodus of her son and her husband, Valadon's life continued to be filled with friends, visitors, and art. At age 70, a Russian painter of 35, came into her life. He became her care giver and and entertained her with serenades on his guitar. She died of a stroke at age 72.

Career: During all this drama, the main day-to-day reality of Suzanne's life was that she was making art, sketching and painting in her studio. She had a strong and persistent drive to create art and to build her reputation. What's really impressive is that although she needed to make a living from her work, she never settled for being commercially viable. She pursued her own creative agenda and her own style, and succeeded on her own terms.

Suzanne's work makes clear references to Post-Impressionist and Fauve art. Her paintings have strong composition and vibrant colors.  Her brushwork is bold and open, and she often used firm black lines to define her figures.

She painted all the traditional subjects, but she was best known for her candid female nudes that depict women's bodies from a woman's perspective. It was unusual in her time for a woman artist to make female nudes her primary subject matter. Suzanne painted her nudes as members of the working-class, recognizable to Victorians by their unidealized bodies, heavy features, relaxed postures, and ease displayed toward their nudity. She resisted typical depictions by her unidealized and self-possessed bodies that are not overtly sexualized. Suzanne transformed the genre of the female nude by providing an insightful expression of women’s experiences.

In 1894, thanks to Degas' support Suzanne was permitted to show her work at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, the first woman to do so. Degas also got the art dealer Ambroise Vollard to give her a show in 1895. Her first exhibitions consisted mostly of portraits.

By 1909, Suzanne, her son Maurice Utrillo, and Suzanne's artist husband, André Utter, were able to support themselves through the sale of their art. In a nice role reversal, Suzanne used André as her model for a number of nude paintings, including one called Adam and Eve, for which she used herself nude as well. When it was first exhibited, it was the first painting by a woman of a naked woman and man together ever shown. It created quite a sensation.

Suzanne's first one-person show in 1911 was a huge success and garnered her many new patrons.

She reached her peak after World War I. She painted at a rapid pace, and received good critical reception. When André returned home, Suzanne and Maurice were doing so well that he focused his attention on marketing their works. Around this time Maurice's work grew in popularity until it overshadowed Suzanne's commercially. Maurice specialized in cityscapes.

In 1917 an important gallery put on a joint exhibition of work by both Suzanne and Maurice, with a few works by André thrown in. This set off a wave of sales.

Maurice Utrillo
Street Scene in Montmartre
Sotheby's Auction, 2013

In 1924 Valadon signed a contract with an important art gallery that enabled her to again live in financial comfort. She purchased a country estate and spent much of her time there.

She produced over 450 oil paintings in her career and had four major retrospective exhibitions.

For a few decades, Maurice Utrillo's work was very popular, and Suzanne Valadon was treated as a figure in his biography. More recently the dynamic development of her work over her career has been greatly admired, along with her persistence in asserting her talent in a male-dominated field.

Dan's photo of Suzanne's work:

Reclining nude, 1928
Photo by Dan L. Smith, from slide

The Abandoned Doll, 1921
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Bouquet of Flowers in an Empire Vase, 1920
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006 

Internet Examples:

Adam and Eve, 1909
Pompidou Center

Suzanne Valadon
Portrait of Maurice Utrillo, 1921

Henri Matisse, 1869-1954
Reclining Odalisque, 1926
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Suzanne Valadon, 1865-1938
The Blue Room, 1923
Pompidou Center

Nude Woman with Drapery, 1919

Bouquet and a Cat,  1919

Wikiart has a good selection of her work: Suzanne Valadon