Suzanne Valadon (original name Marie-Clémentine
Valadon) was born in 1865 at Bessines-sur-Gartempe, near Limoges,
an illegitimate daughter of a French laundress. From age nine
on she supported herself by doing odd jobs. One was as a circus
acrobat. She did it until she fell off the trapeze when she was
sixteen. Looking for a safer occupation, she became an artists'
model. posing for such artists as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Henri
de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Mingling with the Impressionists in the clubs
and cabarets of Montmartre, where she caused a sensation with
her provocative stunts, Suzanne took numerous lovers. At eighteen
she gave birth to an illegitimate son, the future artist Maurice
Valadon soon took interest in painting. She observed
carefully the techniques of the artists for whom she was posing
and began creating her own paintings. Toulouse-Lautrec was the
first to see her drawings and to encourage her. Then her work
won the admiration and support of Degas (he bought three of her
works in 1893), with whom she developed a lasting friendship.
Among the artists she knew were van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso and
She painted portraits, landscapes, still lifes
and, especially, female nudes. Her images are unforgettable in
vibrant and powerful colors reminiscent of the Post-Impressionist
and Fauve styles. Her use of color and her bold representations
of female sexuality challenged the traditional male constructions
of femininity. Valadon's powerful renditions of women's bodies
probably arose from her own experience as an artist's model and
circus performer. Even if Valadon received no formal art training,
she was able (through her close associations with prominent artists)
to develop a re-gendering of women's bodies and strength. The
self-absorbtion and vitality of her subjects, for instance, are
in stark opposition to the essential passivity of females nudes
that had until then been the traditional manner of representing
In 1915, she had her first one person exhibition,
which became a critical as well as a commercial success. Her later
exhibits were also successful. Yet bourgeois society was shocked
by Valadon's art, especially her candid and earthy nudes -which,
like her sexual conduct, defied convention.
Valadon's personal life attracted as much attention
as did her art. She had well-known affairs with the painter Puvis
de Chavannes, the composer Erik Satie, the painter Renoir. After
an attempt at respectability in a marriage to the banker Paul
Moussis with whom she lived for fourteen years, she fell in love
with André Utter; an artist twenty-one years her junior. He became
the love of her life (Suzanne was nearly fifty when she married
Utter and returned to a precarious bohemian existence). They had
several joint art exhibitions and he also posed for a number of
Valadon's works, including the painting Adam and Eve.
|Detail of Adam and Eve, 1909
Despite her struggles to keep her son, the alcoholic
Utrillo, out of jail, in her middle age Suzannne Valadon produced
her most powerful paintings which glow with the passion and intensity
of her tempestuous life.
When Suzanne Valadon died in 1938, many notables
from the Parisian art community came to her funeral, including
Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Andre Derain.