Woman of the Week: Suzanne Valadon (née Marie-Clémentine Valadon)

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Self-portrait (1927)

‘Suzanne’ Valadon (1865-1938) was born as the bastard Marie-Clémentine Valadon, and only acquired the name by which we know her today as an adult, when her work as a live model for the artists of Montmartre earned her the nickname derived from the biblical story, Susanna and the Elders. She graduated from modelling to using models herself as a painter and artist, and became known for the individuality lent to her work by her female perspective, although she is, somewhat sadly, perhaps best remembered as the mother of Impressionist painter Maurice Utrillo.

Though born in Bessines, Suzanne moved to Paris as a small child. She began to work when she was just 11, finding various jobs including waiting tables and factory work, until she ended up performing as an acrobat in a circus around the age of 15. Though she wanted to continue in this line of work, a serious back injury obtained from a fall whilst on the trapeze prevented her from pursuing this passion, and she turned instead to modelling.

Her first known employer was Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, with whom it is generally assumed she had some kind of romantic or sexual relationship. However, she also had a relationship with Miguel Utrillo, beginning in 1881, and it was he who eventually claimed paternity of the illegal child that Suzanne gave birth to in 1883. Maurice Utrillo, as he became known, was raised largely by his grandmother as Suzanne continued to model and started her career as an artist.

Though her career started with Puvis, Suzanne had become a popular model for many other artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir, who is attributed as the inspiration behind her nickname. She cultivated strong relationships with many of them, being romantically involved with Lautrec while becoming firm friends with Edward Degas, one of the most ardent advocates of her work. Through her observation of their techniques while they painted her, and with their instruction and influence, Suzanne became a self-taught artist who specialised in the female nude and frank, candid portraits.

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Danse à Bougival (Pierre-August Renoir, 1883) features Suzanne Valadon as the principal dancer

As models, Suzanne frequently used her own mother and son, depicting domestic scenes with a gratifying sincerity that can be found equally in her female nudes. Criticised by some for her bold style, with her figures being accused of being ‘too masculine’, others consider her startling honest treatment of the female form as the evidence of her talent. Although other female artists, such as Berthe Morisot, also favoured female subjects, Suzanne’s lower-class background gave her the liberty to paint nudes where their bourgeoisie roots held them back. Thus, Suzanne provided some of the first widely known representations of the female form produced from a female perspective.

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Catherine reclining nude on a leopard skin (1923)

In 1894, Suzanne became the first woman to ever exhibit at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, though it was only after her marriage to stockbroker Paul Mousis in 1896 that her new-found financial stability gave her the time to dedicate herself to her art. It was in the early 20th century that her perhaps most famous tableaux, such as Adam and Eve, Casting the net and The joy of life were finished. These large-scale oil paintings became famous for daring to show men as an object of desire for women, and for being the first pieces by a female artist to focus on sexual pleasure in general.

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Casting the net (Le lancement de fillet) – 1914 (Centre Georges Pompidou)

The subject of these paintings was her significantly younger lover, a painter named Andre Utter who was a friend of her artist son’s. She divorced Mousis in 1913 to remarry Utter, and the three artists lived together in Montmartre, where their former atelier now forms part of the Museum of Montmartre, supporting themselves off their work. By the 20s, though, their relationship had declined, and the pair eventually separated unofficially. Suzanne died in 1938, suffering a stroke whilst painting at her easel and dying in hospital shortly after.