Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Bit of History

Today, I thought I'd write about a woman artist that, perhaps, many have heard little about. As it was in history, a woman's life revolved around the hearth, the family, extended family, and life as an artist was frowned upon unless it had to do with the duties of home-life. Women could take up the paintbrush and easel as a pastime skill, but for the most part, they were not taken as seriously as men artists and poets of the day.

One of my favorite painters is Suzanne Valadon (1867-1938). This portrait (above) was painted by Renoir of the model/artist in 1885. Here he created a soft beauty of the woman with the faraway eyes that seem to be peering through whatever she is looking
upon. He portrays her in almost an ethereal state. It's a far cry from the way she viewed herself (right) in her own self-portrait, or how her son, artist Maurice Utrillo, whom she taught to paint, created her (left).

Both depict a more subtly hardened appearance; a deeply complex and darker personality.

Valadon was never formally trained. Her work developed independently during the Post impressionism period. As other artists of the day saw her potential as just a model, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec saw her as one of them when they viewed her work. She was a rebel in her day, an exquisite rebel who wanted to imitate the life of the famed Medieval rascal poet, Francios Villon (1431). (Villon became a student of arts in Paris. Although a brilliant youngster, it is written that Villon preferred to lead a loose life, and that he continued to live this way - a reckless way of living common among the wilder youth of the University of Paris.) Suzanne Valadron imagined him to be her hero/father figure and even called herself "Mademoiselle Villon!" She saw herself as a rouguish, saucy gal who roamed the streets. She procured her first job in a circus as a flying trapeze artist, until she fell. Then she began to model at artists' studios. She knew immediately it was to be her vocation. She wrote:
"I remember the first sitting I did. I remember saying to myself over and over again, 'This is it! This is it!' Over and over. I said it all day. I did not know why. But I knew that I was somewhere at last that I should never leave."

She was able to achieve an affluent lifestyle being 'kept' by a a wealthy banker. She would feed her cats caviar on Fridays, and ride through Butte in her light carriage drawn by a mule. Her mule was trimmed in little brass bells and silk ribbons, mane and tail. Beside her a caged parrot sat, as well as two wolfhounds at her feet.

As she carried on another affair with a composer, the banker moved her to the suburbs, but Suzanne could not be 'kept'. She moved back to the Butte studio with her son and his friend, painter Andre Utter, who became her lover in 1909. Twenty years younger than she, they married in 1914, and he managed their painting careers and brought in a good living. Valadon was known for her portraits, but then turned to landscapes, still lifes, and nudes. The female nudes shocked at the time, because they were painted in an unashamed way. The joy and sensuality came through her paintings at this time painting her new husband in many. Her still lifes, strongly outlined, depict her joy, energy, and love of life.

After her marriage to Utter, she was able to gain recognition as a serious artist before and after the war, with her obvious talent, flamboyancy and such neighbors as, Georges Braque, Gino Severini, Raoul Duly and best friend Amedo Modigliani. It is written that Suzanne Valadron kept a goat in her studio in Butte to "eat up her bad drawings". It has been written people were stopped in their tracks, one evening, as Suzanne, wearing a corsage of fresh carrots, sat in front of Chez Ma Cousine milking a mare into a wine glass and then heartily drinking it down!

The marriage to Utter did not last, and she lived her last years cared for by a young man named Gazi. In 1894, she was the first woman to be admitted to the SociÈtÈ Nationale des Beaux-Arts. In 1937 at an exhibition of European Women Painters, she told a friend after looking closely at all the art, " I think maybe God has made me France's greatest woman painter. "
When Suzanne Valadron died, Braque, Derain and Picasso, attended her funeral at the CimetiËre parisien, St.-Ouen in Paris.

John Storm, The Valadon Drama
Karen Peterson & J.J Wilson, Women Artists, 1978
There are books on Suzanne Valadon you might enjoy at Amazon. Here are some pics I have found of Suzanne Valadron, her work, and that of others she modeled for.

Works by Suzanne Valadon

Suzanne Valadon by Renoir

Suzanne Valadon by
Toulouse-Lautrec Valadon by Steinien

Photograph of the artist Suzanne Valadon


  1. Wow, Kate, thanks for the art history lesson. You are right, I am not familiar with her work but now I want to read more! Thank you for introducing me to her world!


  2. You're welcome, Kathy. I'm a bit miffed with my Mac and wondering why the wonderful photos I placed here are not showing up on my end. They were on last evening. Amazon has a terrific book on this woman, but maybe the public library has it as well! Thanks for reading and hope all is going well with you! {+:

  3. Very interesting! I love her spirit and would imagine a biography would be one you couldn't put down. Thanks for sharing her with us!

  4. Thanks for sharing the story of Ms. Valadon. My understanding is that up until very, very recent times female artist simply weren't given the same respect as their male counterparts..I wonder how many woman's works have stayed under the bed?
    hug, hug

  5. Hi Kate,

    Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog -- I always enjoy getting feedback. :)

    Currently, I have a little giveaway on my blog -- today is the last day to enter. :)

    Greetings from Munich,

  6. I'm so sorry I missed your Giveaway, Brigit, especially after my last post about Suzanne Valadon and her life in Paris. I feel I must have lived there in a past life! Your work is beautiful and I enjoy going over to your blog and will return often. Hope Spring has sprung in Munich!

  7. Thank you Kathy, Lin, and Julie!I just posted a follow-up after reading an intense biography on Valadon. It was wonderful, and gave so much more insight into this woman artist. I could hardly put it down! It does tells how difficult it was for woman artists, poets, and writers of that period. If it were not for her dogged pursuit of an artist's life through modeling, drawing and befriending Degas and Lautrec, she may never have been able to pursue her career. There are always some karmic meetings that will propel if we have the desire. So glad you liked it.


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